Early Cold War spy thriller with great performances by Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter

Extravagant claims are made for thw noirish 1953 spy film “Pickup on South Street” and for its director, Sam Fuller. It has its moments of technical brilliance in lighting and camera placement, and two superb performances (by Richard Widmark as Skip, a professional pickpocket just released from his third prison term, and Thelma Ritter as Moe, who sells information and neckties).

The plot, centering on microfilm being followed by FBI agents en route to a Soviet agent when a pickpocket takes the billfold it is in out of the courier’s purse on a subway, is hard to swallow, but what is even more difficult to accept is that a hardened courier Candy (who within the semiotics of 1950s film censorship is signaled as being a prostitute) finds love at first punch with a three-time loser (Skip). It’s not “love at first sight,” because their first contact is him punching her out in the dark. He then revives her by pouring cold beer in her face, but his kiss is like that of none of the many men who have kissed her. . . And she is soon risking her life to protect him. Meanwhile, he despises her as being a communist, though he is willing to deal the microfilm to the enemies of civilization for a price. (25 grand to be exact).

Interestingly, the information professional, Moe, is not. The action stops for her aria on being tired of life and drawing the line at selling information to the highest bidder when it comes to communists. Despite being given the most propagandistic lines in the whole propagandistic film, Ritter makes them at least momentarily believable (and was robbed of an Oscar by voters choosing Donna Reed’s totally unconvincing prostitute in “From Here to Eternity” for the award). She certainly makes being too tired to care if she goes on believable, and a willingness to dispense even with her goal of saving up enough money to have a proper funeral.

As far as I can remember, all the violence in the movie is visited on women. The policeman (can he really be a captain?) has gotten into trouble before for beating up Skip, so Skip is able to taunt him and invite fresh shots.

The very ordinary-looking (and therefore all the more dangerous a subversive) Joey, played by Richard Kiley, can still make demands (the last job: wasn’t that already a cliché in 1953?) on ex-girlfriend Candy. (Or are we supposed to see him as her pimp? But then why is she going to be free after delivering the microfilm?) Crooks and bad girls rally to the flag. (Apparently, the FBI was displeased at the representation of one of its agents buying information.)

There are many tight close-ups, especially of the new lovers kissing and of Widmark’s trademark contemptuous smirk. By careful, often quite eloquently expressionist camera placement, Fuller did a lot with a small budget (here and elsewhere). It’s hard not to be amused by the snitch picking up his price with chopsticks and then returning to shoveling unseen (and probably nonexistent) rice into his mouth with the same chopsticks.

The performers

After his sensational debut as a psychotic killer in “Kiss of Death” in 1947, Richard Widmark appeared in some other noirish classics, including No Way Out, Road House, Don’t Bother to Knock, and (as the hero) in Panic in the Streets. He went on to such ensembles of stars as Judgment at Nuremberg, How the West, and Cheyenne Autumn before sinking into made-for-TV movies.

If Jean Peters is remembered at all, it is for “A Man Called Peter” or “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Her career for all practical purposes lasted from 1952 (“Viva Zapata”) to 1955 (“Peter”). She was a bit too wholesome to be a cinema noir femme fatale, but was not cast as one earlier, in the immediate postwar heyday of cinema noir.

Thelma Ritter played memorable roles in two of the best 1950s Hollywood films, “All About Eve” and “Rear Window” and was memorable in “With a Song in My Heart,” “Pillow Talk,” “The Misfits,” and “Birdman of Alcatraz.” She was nominated for Oscars six times, including in this film, but did not win any.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

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