Pickup on South Street Review

Samuel Fuller’s film noir classic comes to Blu-ray via the Masters of Cinema Series

A lean, compact 80 minutes, Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is always a joy to revisit. Nothing’s wasted. The editing is tight and the pacing deftly keeps up with a rather full plot. Those new to the film are in for a dynamic treat. It’s my own personal favorite of Fuller’s pictures and somewhere among the ten greatest films noir.

From the start, the viewer is tossed right into the narrative with an exciting, wordless opening scene in which we see pickpocket Richard Widmark victimize an unsuspecting Jean Peters on a NYC subway. Widmark’s Skip McCoy is unaware that he’s actually pinching the microfilm Peters is carrying for her Communist boyfriend. A three-time loser, McCoy gets confronted by the police and even threatened with charges of treason. “Are you waving the flag at me?” is the response from McCoy (and Fuller). It’s an immortal line, particularly when examined in the context of the time (blacklist era 1953) and the two politically engaged men who, respectively, wrote and said it.

Widmark was nearing the end of a ridiculously fertile run to start his career at 20th Century Fox. He’d debuted to great acclaim and an Oscar nomination as the cackling villain Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. Excellent work in films like Road House, Yellow Sky, Panic in the Streets and, especially, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City followed during a stretch where he averaged about three films per year. His noir character triptych of Udo, Harry Fabian, and McCoy is perhaps rivaled only by Bogart. The range explored just in that trio of characters, from insane rage to childlike self-destruction on to the keen self-sufficiency seen here, is remarkable. Widmark’s ability to elicit sympathy from the desperate, morally quite grey protagonists makes his work all the more affecting.

Fuller gets a good deal out of Peters, as well. She was an interesting actress, having shined brightly for Jacques Tourneur in Anne of the Indies a couple of years earlier, who’d soon end up with Howard Hughes and consequently out of the movie business. Here, as Candy, she manages to carefully straddle the line between delicate and harsh while playing a decent woman decidedly lacking in virtue. She sees in Skip something of a kindred spirit even if, again, Candy is sort of working a couple of different angles at once. Peters generally gets under-appreciated here, particularly when measured against Widmark or the great Thelma Ritter, but it’s tough to think of another of her contemporaries who would’ve pulled off the role as well.

That opening interaction she has with Widmark, as Fuller employs his preferred close-ups for maximum sexual undertones, burns itself into the viewer’s consciousness. In a film brimming with great, memorable scenes and moments, the tight shot of Peters licking her lips as perspiration builds, unaware Widmark is penetrating her handbag with his fingers, has always stayed with me. This is great filmmaking, and it goes far in establishing that these two characters, subsisting in life’s margins and concerned far more with their day-to-day survival than patriotic threats, could share a romantic interest in one other.

The depth of viewer concern Fuller creates for his three main characters, particularly given their combined moral ambiguities, cannot be overstated. He’s not exactly known as a traditionally romantic director, yet so often a sense of empathy bleeds from the screen. We care about Skip, we care about Candy, and we really care about Ritter’s character Moe.

Nominated for six Academy Awards but winner of none, Thelma Ritter lost to Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity after being recognized for her work here. This is the one she probably should’ve taken home the Oscar for, all things considered. Whatever her exact time onscreen is, the way Ritter plays her character makes us feel like we know exactly who Moe is. That makes her fate all the more upsetting, and Fuller’s portrayal of it has a melancholy so affecting as to almost take the viewer out of the film momentarily.

Of course, it wouldn’t be film noir if everything was all smiles and laughter. Pickup on South Street was the first noir made by the last great director of the style. Just Fuller’s sixth feature as director, the movie was also the only traditional, black and white film noir he actually helmed within the often established loose timeline spanning The Maltese Falcon in 1941 to Touch of Evil in 1958. Still, it’s tough to discredit the noir credentials of The Crimson Kimono, Underworld U.S.A., The Naked Kiss and even the wide CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color House of Bamboo. In Fuller, noir had perhaps its toughest, most fearless auteur – someone who adored his non-traditional antiheroes and wasn’t afraid to celebrate their flaws. Pickup on South Street remains the very essence of this ideal.

The Disc(s)

The Masters of Cinema Series, on a noticeable run of celebrating American cinema lately, brings Pickup on South Street to Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD in the UK. The BD is locked to Region B. It is single-layered.

The film is presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, preserving the original Academy ratio in which it was shot. Damage is minimal. While sharpness is generally good, there’s a little more grey in the contrast at times than perhaps expected. That said, scenes like the nighttime jaunts to Widmark’s waterfront home do showcase deep black levels. Overall, it doesn’t wow or pop to the extent that we may have previously seen from MoC but it still makes for a fine viewing experience. I’d be hesitant to even hint at steering anyone away from this release simply because a few interior scenes might be less contrasted than what we’ve seen elsewhere. The overall impression is a positive one.

Audio sounds proficient, with the LPCM English mono track registering a strong sense of urgency and depth as necessary. Dialogue and musical cues are clear, coming off crisply and without incident. Subtitles are provided in English for the hearing impaired.

On the discs are a nice collection of interviews pertaining to the film. Done for this release is a lengthy, wide-ranging piece (32:13) with Kent Jones. Several detours here, and maybe a bit of editing would’ve elevated things, but he clearly has an affinity for Fuller.

A 2004 interview (23:24) with French critic and author Francois Guerif focuses on the film noir element. Better still is a 1982 session (11:42) with Fuller himself from a French television program in which he talks about the opening scene of his film as it plays in a screening room. You immediately recognize how entertaining his DVD and Blu-ray commentaries would have been if those opportunities had ever come his way. Perhaps worth noting that burned-in French subtitles are attached, though it’s hardly a concern.

The theatrical trailer (1:47) can be played from the disc menu.

An included booklet combines a new, 10-page essay by Murielle Joudet (a fine read) with writing by Fuller excerpted from his autobiography A Third Face. Fuller’s words are, as ever, intoxicating,  and I especially like how he boils down Pickup on South Street in the context of its potential politics. “My yarn is a noir thriller about marginal people, nothing more, nothing less,” he writes. The remainder of the 28 pages are filled with stills and movie and disc credits.

clydefro jones

Updated: Aug 17, 2015

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Pickup on South Street Review

Samuel Fuller's noir masterpiece starring Richard Widmark as a pickpocket and Jean Peters as something like a hooker gets a solid Masters of Cinema treatment on Blu-ray.

Pickup on South Street Review | The Digital Fix