Pickup on South Street (1953)

Directed by Sam Fuller

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Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is a subway pickpocket who lives in a shack on the waterfront, likening him to a sewer rat, hiding in the shadows.  He emerges only when he needs something and is otherwise content to live a solitary life.

He’s a part of an underground community of pickpockets, a community treated almost like a ring of government spies.  The police rely on an informant, Moe (Thelma Ritter), who is something of a pickpocket-whisperer.  They bring her in when a man reports seeing a pickpocket at work, Skip.  When he explains how Skip worked, Moe carefully considers and narrows the possible suspects down to eight people who use that particular method.

The witness only caught onto the slithering Skip because the victim, Candy (Jean Peters), was ‘hot.’  She was in possession of a strip of film meant to be delivered to Communist agents, and Skip pocketed it on accident, along with the petty cash he was really after.

Following the theft, Skip finds himself shoved into the spotlight.  The police are after him, as are secret Communist spies.  Candy will be the one to track him down, but her motivations and aspirations are as muddied as his.  They will each find themselves antagonized by both sides, struggling to figure out their next move.

This being a film noir, Skip is out for himself.  He’s not unlike Rick Blaine in Casablanca, having to decide between his self-interests and doing the greater good.  In this case he prefers to extort the Communists for $25,000 rather than to go to the police.  It’s Candy, who doesn’t realize the people for whom she works are spies, who tries to convince him to turn the film into the police instead.  She will later knock him unconscious and take the film to the police herself.

The film boils down to a third act climax in which Skip finds himself fighting one on one with a Communist spy.  He may as well be a soldier on the front lines, the great American patriot doing battle with the damn “Red.”  In reality, however, Skip’s motivations are entirely personal.  It still doesn’t matter to him who wins this ideological battle, but it just so happens that the spy has killed both Moe and Candy.  Both are women who, despite doing some harm to Skip, have become his allies, mostly out of respect because they share a similar code.

Skip wins in the end.  He is a reluctant hero, a sewer rat who again only comes out when necessary.  This time, however, his survival instincts overlap with an ideological sense of honor.  He becomes a tragic figure like Bogart in Casablanca, a man who almost unwittingly, certainly reluctantly, serves his country and the greater good.

Sam Fuller’s film is short but grand.  It’s full of swooping, zooming camera movements that accentuate the action onscreen.  There are more close ups than I can remember, and the dramatic camera movements thrust us into the story and the characters’ personal space.  It almost feels like a violation of some unspoken rule, as we rush into the actors’ faces, suddenly able to read every flinch, wrinkle and lip curl.

The proximity of actor to camera helps emphasize the intimacy between characters.  They will clutch each other both in acts of love and death.  In one moment the tone switches quickly between the two as Skip and Candy fall into a loving embrace and then just as quickly resort to fighting.

This seems to suggest a similar intimacy between love and hate.  The characters who mean the most to Skip, Candy and Moe, are people who turn on him at different times.  In each case, however, they are only out to protect themselves, just like Skip.  He recognizes this and appreciates them all the more for it.  He is a noir hero who doesn’t fall victim to the idea of the femme fatale because she’s more than that.

Characters express their undying love in a tight embrace, and they often die in the same formation.  In Pickup on South Street, every character is a stone’s throw away from ecstasy and death.

Up Next: Beginners (2010), Lars and the Real Girl (2007), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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