A spy, a hooker & a pickpocket walk into a police station…
Skip McCoy is a cannon, a pickpocket who works the crowds in busy New York city. While pursuing his usual line of criminal work, he steals some items from a woman’s purse. Little does he know that the woman is a courier for a communist spy ring and he just stole a piece of microfilm that they will do almost anything to get back. Also interested are the G-Men looking to arrest said spies. Both parties suspect he’s involved and Skip will have to think fast to get out of this mess. Complicating things are his growing feelings for the girl who was the unwitting courier for the gang.
Pickup on South Street is a 1953 film noir directed by the famously independent Sam Fuller, who was also a crime beat reporter in New York and a combat infantryman in WW2.
Fuller’s own experiences give the film a gritty, street level realism that stands out even in the famously gritty film noir genre. All of the characters in this film have agendas, scams and their own motivations that never completely mesh with anyone else’s.
Skip, the pickpocket, played by Richard Widmark is just looking to survive in a tough city. he’s already a 2 time felon, one more conviction or even a misdemeanor will send him up state for 20 years. So he’s very uninterested in helping to investigate a group of spies. He starts as an anti-hero at best, at one point snarling “Don’t wave your flag at me” to an FBI agent trying to appeal to his patriotism.
Candy, the woman he robbed, played by Jean Peters in one of her best roles, thought she was just doing a favor for an ex-boyfriend by dropping off a package. She suspected it was probably something illegal, but she had no idea that she was a courier for an international spy ring. Her attempts to work her charm on Skip to get the film back and his acidic replies, are some of the better parts of the film.The chemistry between the two leads is electric and provides a needed mid-film jolt.
Another great performance is Thelma Ritter’s character Moe, who earns a living as a professional information broker, ie a stool pigeon. She also serves as a sort of surrogate mother to Skip and provides part of the catalyst that turns him from indifferent crook to spy hunter by the climax of the film.
The backstory on the production of Pickup on South Street is almost as interesting as the film itself. Before Jean Peters was cast as Candy, Shelley Winters, Betty Grable and Marylin Monroe were all considered and rejected for various reasons. Betty Grable apparently wanted the role badly, but also wanted a dance number that Sam Fuller thought (correctly IMHO) would destroy the flow and authenticity of the film. Fuller liked Monroe’s acting, but felt her beauty and sex appeal would distract from the rest of the story and wouldn’t be believable. Jean Peters provided the right combination of toughness, street smarts, and sex appeal for the character.
Sam Fuller also had multiple battles with the Code censors over the level of violence and overt sexuality in the film. You can tell from the final product that Fuller was able to preserve much of the film’s character. The main changes seem to be an overly optimistic happy ending and some deliberate vagueness in the story about what Candy’s actual profession is (hint: Not a Sunday school teacher). Fortunately these concessions don’t affect the quality of the finished product.
The film is one of the most violent I’ve seen from the era, with several brutal murders, beatings and a final fight scene that is spectacularly choreographed and filmed. Fuller’s street experience shows in the portrayal of how tough life on the streets can be for the poor and criminal. You can feel the desperation and sense of vulnerability of many of the characters as they struggle to make it another day.
Verdict 4 gavels out of 5 Classic in the film noir genre, with a bit of espionage and romance mixed in to keep things interesting.