Through his career, Samuel Fuller carved a dark corner in Hollywood, writing and directing pictures that used America’s shadowy underbelly as a backdrop for sexy, romantic capers, fronted by characters with mixed-up morals. Some of his films may be deemed a little rough around the edges, too eager to shock and awe the audience into an easy state of knee-jerk praise – but there was always an exciting energy to them, one that’s undimmed by time. 1953’s Pickup on South Street is one such movie, where Fuller’s best-received tendencies are mixed potently with his most controversial.
The plot is something Hitchcock would’ve killed for: Candy (Jean Peters) gets pickpocketed on the New York subway by Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), although both are unknowing of the wallet’s true contents: a strip of film containing an equation that could turn the tide in the cold war in favour of the Russians. But don’t expect you’ve sussed Pickup On South Street already: its story slinks along like its suspect characters, with Skip drinking it all in at the centre. Widmark’s charm as this weasel-human hybrid belies the life of a character who lives on the docks in a shack, a man of biting intellect who chooses to live on the fringes of society in order to steal from it now and again. But also vying for number one place as the picture’s most interesting character is Candy, a femme fatale-type who Peters fills with a nervous energy; she’s someone who desperately wants to be loved, and she believes Skip can fill this particular void. There lies the movie’s problem; its lean structure means that it chugs along its narrow rails at breakneck speed, dispensing one excellent scene for an even better one (fuelled by dialogue at its most quotably snappy), but at the expense of building a sturdy foundation. Within its brief running time, there’s little time to develop, or even rationalise their relationship beyond ‘love at first sight’ – and at that, a love which borders on perverse compulsion. It’s also an unforgivably violent and abusive relationship, which is difficult to label as either dated, or psychologically ahead of its time. Such is Fuller’s film; it keeps us guessing and engaged, even when there’s a part somewhere in us that strongly disavows what we’re seeing.
But besides Fuller’s own brace-yourselves screenplay and noir-inspired direction, the most interesting thing Pickup on South Street has to offer – in its minimal story with minimal players – is the huge consequences of its MacGuffin, the filmstrip with Soviet-friendly contents. It’s easy to infer that the director was staunchly against Communism (in one line, a character states simply that her only problem with the Reds is that she ‘doesn’t like them’). It’s a brazenly simple perspective on the tension at the time, and would be almost enough to drag the movie down at times, were it not for a sneaking suspicion that a type of deeply layered satire is at work. Such is the craft of the film’s tone, and such is the talent of the cast doing some of their best work, that this sexy, smart, and slippery picture becomes so enjoyable because of its refusal to stick to a single, straight line of questioning. Does it ask any in the first place?
Pickup on South Street is available now from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series.