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 centered on a meeting that he and Fox studio president Darryl Zanuck had with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who took issue with Fuller’s script for the 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) from a woman’s purse, 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 the 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. That was the character, they argued, and, for better or for worse, Skip McCoy wasn’t the kind of guy who’d 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 go on to become one of the most fascinating 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, while riding the New York subway, he lifts a wallet from a purse belonging to Candy (Jean Peters), who, without knowing it, was being used by her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) to deliver a sensitive government microfilm to a Soviet spy. FBI agent Zara (Willis Boucher) had been following Joey and Candy for some time, and personally witnessed McCoy stealing the wallet (which also held the microfilm). But McCoy got off the subway car too quickly, and before Zara could even react, he was gone.
Teaming up with Capt. Tiger (Murvyn Vye) of the New York police department, Zara hires the services of professional stool pigeon Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), who, for a price, fingers Skip McCoy as the likely pickpocket and tips them off as to where he’s shacked up at the moment. McCoy is brought in for questioning, and is even offered immunity for committing the crime if he agrees to turn over the microfilm. But he refuses, saying he’s innocent, and demands to be set free. With nothing to hold him on, Tiger and Zara release McCoy, then 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 she lost it in the first place, Joey tells Candy that it’s up to her to recover the microfilm, and before long she also crosses paths with Moe, who demands $50 to reveal where Skip McCoy lives. As Candy is sneaking around his abode in the dark, McCoy walks in and gets the better of her. But as the two trade 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 quite valuable, and tells Candy that he wants $25,000 for the microfilm. The question is, will Skip McCoy live long enough to collect it?
“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 (which was replicated across three sound stages on the Fox lot), the entire sequence plays out with no dialogue. We see a woman (Candy) on a subway car, staring off into space, and there are cutaways to two men (Zara and his partner), a few feet away, clearly watching her. Then, another man (Skip McCoy) enters the car. After looking over the crowd, he stands next to the woman, pretending to read the newspaper. As he does, we see (via close-up) his hand gently open her purse and rifle through it. Finding the wallet, he slowly removes it, then, by bumping into her, closes the purse before the woman knows what’s happened. Every so often, the camera reminds us about the two men, who are obviously confused by what’s going on.
At this point in the film, we the audience don’t know the characters or 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 we can’t wait to see what happens next.
What really impressed me, though, were the characters that populate the movie, chief among them Skip McCoy and the 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 anyone else, Skip McCoy is a total wise-ass, refusing to cooperate and acting as if he’s untouchable (the scene where he’s interrogated by Tiger and Zara is my favorite in the entire film). Still, despite his callous attitude towards everyone and everything, he doesn’t get upset when he finds out it was Moe, an old friend of his, who turned him into the cops in the first place. “Moe’s ok”, he says to Candy at one point, “She’s got to eat, too”. As for Moe, she genuinely likes Skip, and when the chips are down, he’s the only one who has her back.
As laid out in Fuller’s sharp, witty 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 (as it turns out, they do).
The rest of the cast is also strong (as Candy, Jean Peters is both street-wise and naïve), and the story twists and turns in all the right ways. But while the supporting players, Fuller’s direction, and a well-told tale add up to a damn good motion picture, it’s the characters of Skip McCoy and Moe Williams that make Pickup on South Street a great one.