“Pickup on South Street” (1953) starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, & Richard Kiley

This is considered one of the “essential noirs” for anyone interested in the genre. It was written/directed by a 1st generation Jewish-American, Samuel Fuller, a legend of the genre. As a teen, Fuller got into the newspaper biz, then worked as a crime reporter for several years. When WWII started, he served as an infantryman in several dangerous campaigns, and even shot one of the first docs inside a concentration camp! Later in his Hollywood career, Fuller was known for his prolific screenwriting (some of which were made into films), tacking controversial subjects w/ an unflinching eye (to the extent that censors allowed), and making the most of small budgets.

On a crowded subway, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) picks the purse of a streetwalker- Candy (Jean Peters). Inside the pocketbook is a piece of top-secret microfilm that was being passed by Candy’s ex-boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley), a Communist agent. Kiley (who is sort of handsome w/ his dark eyes) looked very familiar to me; it turns out he was the father in the famous ’80s miniseries- The Thorn Birds! Candy discovers that Skip is the thief who has the film through an older police informer/saleswoman- Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter).

[1] None of them are really good guys and they all of their flaws and weaknesses. Really humane. It also especially features a great performance from Thelma Ritter, who even received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for. It has really got to be one of the greatest female roles I have ever seen.

[2] ...even though the characters aren’t perfect, you do care about them — perhaps because they have been somewhat branded by their pasts in ways that are hard to escape: Skip as a “three-time loser” and Candy as a youngish woman who has “knocked around” a lot.

[3] It is hard to believe that when Widmark made this film he was already in early middle age. The 39-year-old star… plays the upstart Skip McCoy with the irreverent brashness of a teenager. 

Haunting urban panoramas and subway stations offer a claustrophobic evocation of the city as a living, malevolent force. Like maggots in a rotting cheese, human figures scurry through the city’s byways. Elevators, subway turnstiles, sidewalks – even a dumb waiter act as conduits for the flow of corrupt humanity.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Pickup on South Street was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2018, by the Library of Congress for being, “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The film is about espionage, but in the French and German versions, the title was changed and all dialogue referring to spying was replaced by language about drug dealing. After seeing a preview of the film, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover demanded a meeting w/ studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and Fuller. He objected to the unpatriotic nature of Skip, even when he realizes he’s dealing w/ communists. Surprisingly, Zanuck refused to make any changes to the film, backing Fuller! This ended the studio’s close relationship w/ the FBI and all references to the agency were removed from the film’s advertising.

Marilyn Monroe read for the role of Candy; Fuller liked her very much, but said her “overwhelming sensuality” was wrong for the story. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Shelley Winters was originally cast to play Candy, but due to pregnancy, the studio assigned the role to Betty Grable. She refused the part when she learned that she’d be playing a prostitute. Anne Baxter and Linda Darnell were also considered for the role. Fuller saw Peters in the studio commissary, thought the way she walked was perfect for the part, and cast her on the spot. Candy acts tough, but is also naive in some ways.

Ritter’s New York accent lends authenticity to the film, though it was not shot in that city. New Yorkers will be surprised when Candy refers to Houston Street (pronouncing it like the Texas city), though the correct way is pronounced “House-ton.” Classic film fans may have admired Ritter’s supporting roles in two great films- All About Eve (as Bette Davis’ friend/assistant) and Rear Window (as a nurse who gives Jimmy Stewart some good relationship advice). Actors of her caliber really add something extra to whatever movie they are in!

Much of this film is shot in extreme close-up, which (as Eddie Muller commented) was rare for its day. Character drives the plot here and the close-ups are used to support character. When Skip interrogates Candy, the close-up captures the sexual tension/energy between them. Peters is shot in soft focus close-ups, enhancing her beauty. The device is employed to heighten the tension. The opening has no dialogue; the drama relies entirely on close-up.

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