Published on January 16th, 2014 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Criterion Cut – Pickup on South Street
In the 1950s, the Commies were coming. America was on its toes and Hollywood took notice. The common criminals in action thrillers had suddenly become these mysterious communists, who were portrayed as shadowy and diabolical. Filmmakers were forced to display the pro-America sentiments that federal organizations were shoving down people’s throats. But then Sam Fuller rolled into town, with a chip carefully placed on his shoulder.
That’s why Pickup on South Street is as politically neutral as it is clever and exciting — because Fuller just simply didn’t care. His 1952 film noir stars the devilish Richard Windmark as Skip McCoy, a low-level pickpocket who nicks the wrong purse, owned by a sharp-tongued, city gal named Candy. Candy’s job is to transport some micro-film to an upper-level communist operative that her boyfriend is working for. Problem is, she had it stolen on the subway. Even bigger problem is, the feds saw the whole thing. As both parties race to find the micro-film, Skip is caught right in the middle. And this is where it gets good. Skip, being the hapless crook he is, doesn’t exude a single ounce of patriotism. His allegiances simply lie with the highest bidder. He doesn’t buy into the Fed’s phony pleas for him to perform his civic duty. He tells them to, “Get that flag outta my face!” before lying and saying that he doesn’t have the micro-film, knowing he can get a better price elsewhere.
From there, the film evolves into a fascinating cat-and-mouse game, with all the intrigue you’d find in a similar film noir, but with that signature, Sam Fuller nose-dive into the pulpy and insane. The film’s biggest strength is how Fuller balances the film noir aspects with the significant amount of wit and charm while still making the film about the characters and not the atmosphere they live in. It’s a thriller, wrapped in a love story, with just a sprinkle of comedy. Everything but the clichéd, propaganda that it easily could’ve been.
As with most of Sam Fuller’s films, this one ruffled a few feathers. The MPAA had a field day with the film’s violence, specifically the kind directed at Candy. A number of fight scenes had to be shot in different ways, just in case they couldn’t get what they wanted. The film was also predictably criticized for being anti-American by featuring a protagonist who doesn’t give a damn about the ‘well-being’ of his country. J. Edgar Hoover personally met with Fuller and producer Darryl Zanuck to pronounce his contempt for the film. Of course, his cries of anger were simply shrugged off, mirroring the attitude of their own character, Skip McCoy himself.
It seems as if Fuller knew how big of a joke the communist-fueled paranoia of the time was and threw all of those premonitions into Pickup, making it feel almost like a dark satire. By featuring a protagonist that is so unpatriotic and self-absorbed, by showing both the Feds and the Commies in a negative light, and by taking all of this with a grain of salt, he is perhaps making an even bolder political statement than lesser, more one-sided thrillers of its time. Fuller just simply didn’t care what his characters’ politics were. He was too busy being fascinated in the web he had spun.
The Criterion release of the film has more features on it than I expected, including a rare interview on a French talk show where Fuller discusses the making of the film. There’s the standard booklet that comes with an essay by Luc Sante and a fascinating excerpt from Sam Fuller’s autobiography about Pickup with an introduction by some guy named Martin Scorsese. But the real gem on this DVD is the collection of trailers from eight of Sam Fuller’s other films, including some of his most famous films like Shock Corridor and Fixed Bayonets as well as my personal favourite Fuller film, The Naked Kiss. I’d give them a watch, especially if you’re a fan of old school movie trailers that spoil the entire film.
When you look it straight in the eye, you can tell that Pickup on South Street is so much more than the noir thriller that it calls itself. It’s more focused on its characters than anything, and it lets the plot revolve around them. Fuller directs with that feverish passion that makes his films so infectious. He makes an adverse statement by remaining silent, and in doing so, elevates the film to a level that only he could access. Fuller was a guy who somehow managed to always be one step ahead of the game. He was the hero that Hollywood needed, yet one they didn’t know they needed and certainly one they didn’t deserve.