Many films have been set in seamy settings where everyone is on the make, believing in nothing and exuding cynicism until something comes along to drive one person into moral behavior (e.g., The Third Man, Casablanca, The Mission). Sometimes what makes the worm turn is romance, sometimes it’s an attack of conscience, sometimes it’s religious faith, but in Pickup on South Street, it’s hatred of Commies!
Samuel Fuller’s 1952 hard-boiled masterpiece is set in the urban world of schemers, grifters, prostitutes, cops and robbers that he knew so well. The film’s perfect opening sequence, which is dialogue, backstory and exposition-free, shows cool as a cucumber pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifting the wallet from the kind of woman a respectable young man’s parents hope he never brings home (Jean Peters). The theft is observed by two men who turn out to be federal agents. They’ve been trailing the woman because she has been unknowingly passing military secrets to the Reds at the behest of her lover/co-conspirator (Richard Kiley). Meanwhile, the clever Skip soon figures out that the piece of microfilm he found in the stolen wallet is extremely valuable. Skip decides to sell it to the highest bidder, politics notwithstanding, thereby throwing himself into conflict and intrigue with the cops, the feds and the Reds.
The entire cast is on fire here, and all of them are well-matched to Fuller’s pulpy tone and visuals. Even though she hated playing the sexy bad girl, Jean Peters electrified a generation of men when this film was released, which was just before women of her physical type were largely pushed aside by Hollywood producers in favor of curvaceous blondes like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Richard Widmark, who might remind modern audiences of a young Jack Nicholson, exudes cocky charm, which is an ideal foil for Kiley’s more restrained performance as a desperate Communist agent.
But despite all the thespian talent put on display by the leads, this film is nearly stolen by Thelma Ritter in a supporting performance as Moe, an aging, raffish stoolie/ragwoman who just wants to save enough money for a nice funeral. She will sell almost anyone out — even her surrogate son Skip — but she draws the line at helping Reds. And Skip, otherwise amoral, draws his own line in the sand when Moe becomes a target.
Pickup on South Street is a rough, tough tale of the city which features corruption, disloyalty, double-dealing, licentiousness and some savage physical violence (I would not be surprised if both Peters and Kiley got some bruises making this movie). In short, for fans of Fuller and film noir more generally, what’s not to like?
To give you the flavor of this movie, I embed below one of my favorite scenes, which is representative of the whole. Jean Peters’ character is looking for the “cannon” (slang for pickpocket) who stole her wallet and believes that someone named Lightning Louie can facilitate her search.