Sunday, 3 May 2015

Pickup on South Street (1953)

You know those spoof movies that take a genre or two and run all the tropes and clichés, but exaggerated for hilarity? If you do you would know that the crime/noir/spy theme has been a frequent victim and frankly I was afraid that I had dumped into such a movie, or worse, a movie that unintentionally was a spoof upon itself.

This is how it starts, “Pickup on South Street”. Very hardboiled, tough criminals, tougher detectives, dangerous dames and a jargon so full of hardboiled slang that is entirely incomprehensible. Oh no, I thought, this could be a tough ride.

Slowly however the uneasy feeling settled and I started to enjoy this film. The B-movie factor is still extremely high, but corny turns to cool and caricatures turn to people. This is fun, I thought, I like this.

Then, gradually, I realize the movie is transforming again. The spy theme slides into the background and as we get super close-up views of the characters the real themes come clear. This is about people, their motives and priorities. The hard necessity of life and the decisions they must make. Maybe it sounds even cornier than the hard boiled spy theme, but actually these more human themes are treated with a stark tenderness that feels a lot more real than the action hulabalu we are served as a front.

It is on this background I can say that I liked this movie a lot more than I expected and had a grand time watching it.

There are so many things happening in the plot that a synopsis would be a multi-page affair so I will be very brief. Candy (Jean Peters) is a courier for her former boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). She thinks she is conveying harmless trade messages, but it is actually classified information to the commies. In the subway her purse gets picked by the professional pickpocket Skip (Richard Widmark) who thereby comes into possession of the microfilm with the sensitive information. And all hell breaks loose.

Government agents (FBI?) were following Candy and needed to see who got the film so they could bust the spy. The theft throws their operation into disarray and they must get it back. Joey must deliver that film to the commie spy and is desperate to get the film back for which purpose he presses Candy into action. Both the police and Candy use a professional police informer in the form of old Moe (Thelma Ritter) to find Skip and Skip soon finds out that the wares he got are hot and worth a lot of money.

An affair evolves between Skip and Candy and when she finds out she has been working for commies she is looking for a way out for her and for Skip.

There are many more elements to the story, but the three central figures here are Skip, Candy and Moe.

Moe is tough as nails. She speaks like a dockworker and haggles like a salesman of pre-owned cars as she peddles information (and ties as a front). Is she a moral wreck for associating with the criminals and then sell information about them to the highest bidder? No, the movie tells us, she just have to make a living like everybody else and as she respect a moral code that requires that nobody get badly hurt by her information she is accepted and even liked by everybody. Behind the tough exterior she is a frail old woman whose last mission in life is to save enough money for a proper funeral so she can avoid Potters Field. We get closer and closer to her and so does the camera and with each step she becomes more naked until we stare straight into her soul.

Joey as a communist spy is outside the code of the New York underworld. He does not understand it and to the standard criminals treason is as bad as it is to the rest of us. To Joey Moe is a danger, not a fellow member of the underworld and when he shoots her he also declares war on thieves like Skip. The scene where Skip intercepts the coffin with Moe in it and redirects it to give her a proper funeral is one of the most poignant in the movie.

Candy is at first a tool for Joey to get the package back and she uses her female charms to get close to him. Those first meetings between them are so full of deceit and hardboiled lingo that is difficult to say who is taking advantage of who. Skip clearly is convinced that her objective is the package, but her feelings for him are slowly becoming real and when she realize that Joey has been using her as a commie spy she becomes seriously worried for Skip. How much is real and how much is fake with her? She changes over the film from hardboiled cool to almost desperate. She has to juggle Joey, the police and Skip. Who can she tell what and where her allegiance lies? It is a tightrope walk and the rope is getting shakier by the minute.

Skip is maybe the most complex of the characters and the one that develops the most. He starts out as a very one-dimensional bad guy. He is street smart, bad ass and with very low morals a.k.a your classical villain. But Candy’s apparent affection makes him waver. It is noteworthy that it is not the flag-waving patriotism the police come at him with that turns him over. For Skip the 25 grand is more immediate and important. It is what Joey did to Moe and Candy. That makes it personal and that motivates him. You can see that in the final showdown. He hardly cares about the guy who picks up the package, the guy the police wants, no, the delivery done just means that Joey is fair game, that Skip can beat the crap out of him.

It is telling for the movie that the micro film and the commie spy that is so important at the opening of the film has entirely gone from focus at the end. At that point it is all about Candy and Skip. That is actually a massive transformation, but more impressive when you consider the change from B-movie superficial spy and crime style to a much more elegant noir style by the end. There were scenes there that reminded me of “The Third Man” with the chase in the sewers.

This was fun. Far more enjoyable than expected.


  1. Samuel Fuller is always worth watching. This film isn't perfect, but it's a hell of a lot of fun.

  2. Some really fun plot twists in this one. Another scene stealing turn from Thelma Ritter.

    1. There are so many plot details that I cannot recount them all, and most of them work very well.

  3. I liked this one, but I confess I didn't remember a lot about it until I was reading your description and it started coming back to me.

    1. I know the feeling. It is curious what it sometimes is you remember from the movies.