Friday, March 10, 2017

#2,318. Pickup on South Street (1953)

Directed By: Samuel Fuller

Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter

Tag line: "How the law took a chance on a B-girl... and won!"

Trivia: Marilyn Monroe sat in on a rehearsal and actually read for the role of Candy

One of director Sam Fuller’s favorite anecdotes was about a meeting that he and Fox studio president Darryl Zanuck had with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.  Hoover, it seems, had some problems with Fuller’s script for his 1953 movie Pickup on South Street. The story of a pickpocket named Skip McCoy who inadvertently swipes a government microfilm (which was about to be delivered to an enemy agent), Hoover wasn’t happy with the fact that, smack dab in the middle of the Cold War, the lead character not only refused to turn the film over to the authorities, but laughed at police interrogators when they accused him of being unpatriotic (“Are you waving the flag at me?”, McCoy says with a smirk).

Fuller and Zanuck stood firm. This was the character, they argued, and Skip McCoy wasn’t the kind of guy who would put country, God, or anything else above his own well-being. Hoover likely left the meeting unsatisfied, but by sticking to their guns, Fuller and Zanuck ensured that Pickup on South Street would be one of the most engaging motion pictures to emerge from the 1950’s.

A three-time loser, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) knows that, if the cops pinch him once more, he’ll be sent away for life. But he’s got to make a living, and the only thing he’s good at is picking other people’s pockets. 

McCoy gets more than he bargained for, however, when, on the New York subway, he lifts a wallet from a purse belonging to Candy (Jean Peters). Though she didn't know it, Candy was on her way to deliver a sensitive government microfilm to a Soviet spy. She was sent on this errand by her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), and sure enough, FBI agent Zara (Willis Boucher) has been watching Joey and Candy for some time. 

Zara personally witnessed McCoy stealing the wallet (which also held the microfilm), but the slick pickpocket jumped off the train before the FBI agent could react. And just like that, McCoy was gone.

Teaming up with Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) of the New York police department, Zara hires the services of professional stool pigeon Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), who fingers Skip McCoy as the likely pickpocket. McCoy is brought in for questioning, and is even offered immunity if he agrees to turn over the microfilm. But McCoy refuses, maintaining his innocence and demanding to be set free. With nothing to hold him on, Tiger and Zara release McCoy, then immediately assign an undercover detective to keep an eye on him.

But the authorities aren’t the only ones interested in the film. None too happy that Candy lost it in the first place, Joey tells her, in no uncertain terms, that she has to recover it, and fast! During her search, Candy crosses paths with Moe, who, for $50, reveals Skip McCoy's whereabouts. 

As Candy is sneaking around Skip's abode in the dark, looking for the film, Skip walks in and gets the better of her. But while the two are trading insults, a funny thing happens: Candy starts to fall for the very man who has turned her life upside-down! As for McCoy, he now knows he’s holding something valuable, and tells Candy that he wants $25,000 for the microfilm. 

The question is, will Skip McCoy live long enough to collect?

A director writes with the camera”, Sam Fuller used to say, and nowhere is this more evident than in the opening scene of Pickup on South Street. Set on the New York subway (replicated across three sound stages on the Fox lot), the entire sequence plays out with no dialogue whatsoever. We see Candy in a subway car, staring off into space, and there are cutaways to two men (Zara and his partner), a few feet away, watching her. Then, Skip McCoy enters the car. After looking over the crowd, he stands next to Candy, pretending to read the newspaper. In extreme close-up, we see Skip's hand gently open Candy's purse and rifle through it. Finding the wallet, he slowly removes it, then, pretending to bump into her, closes the purse without her knowing what’s happened.

At this point in the film, we the audience don't know the characters or their story, but Fuller shoots the scene in such a way that it builds tension all the same. It’s a good introduction to the world of Pickup on South Street, and I couldn't wait to see what happened next!

Equally as impressive, perhaps even more so, are the characters themselves, chief among them Skip McCoy and paid informant Moe Williams. Both Widmark and Thelma Ritter deliver excellent performances, but it’s the “unwritten code of honor” between their characters that stuck with me. When dealing with the cops, the FBI, Candy, or indeed anyone, Skip McCoy is a wise-ass, refusing to cooperate and acting like he’s untouchable. The scene where he’s interrogated by Tiger and Zara is my favorite in the entire film, in part because Skip doesn't so much as break a sweat. He knows the routine, and exactly how to play it. 

Yet, despite his callous attitude towards everyone and everything, Skip doesn’t get upset when he finds out it was Moe, an old friend of his, who turned him into the cops. “Moe’s ok”, he says to Candy, “She’s got to eat, too”. As laid out in Fuller’s sharp script, each knows the others' role within the criminal underworld, and accepts it with no questions asked. It may seem like a minor footnote in a movie about thieves and espionage, but it’s important all the same because it gives us insight into two characters who, at first glance, don’t respect anything. To our surprise, Skip and Moe respect each other.

The rest of the cast is also strong (as Candy, Jean Peters fluctuates, quite convincingly, between street-smart and naïve), and the film's story twists and turns in all the right ways. But while solid supporting players, Fuller’s crisp direction, and a well-told tale always add up to a damn good motion picture, it was Skip McCoy and Moe Williams who made Pickup on South Street a great one.

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