Pickup on South Street (1953)

Samuel Fuller | 1hr 20min

The early Cold War paranoia of 1950s America pervades Pickup on South Street, where a pickpocket, former prostitute, and street-smart tie-seller unassumingly collide with a Communist plot to secure confidential government information. Much like North by Northwest which would come six years later, the MacGuffin here is microfilm, upon which this data is stored. Beyond this, the stakes of national intelligence barely matter. It is Samuel Fuller’s storytelling around these three ordinary people who come from the pits of society which crackles with chemistry and tension, letting each one use the skills they have honed in their individual professions to navigate tricky negotiations, duplicitous dealings, and sensual seductions.

Fuller is a skilled visual storyteller, often using the staging of his actors and lighting to create superb compositions like these.

Perhaps it is chance which first brings Skip and Candy together on a New York subway train, but his theft of her wallet is all it takes to send them both tumbling down a rabbit hole of spies and secrets. It is a silent opening of superb visual setups that Fuller commands here, drawing the thief out of a dense crowd before moving into close-ups, cutting between their shared glances and the main target of his desire – her white, ornate purse.

One wouldn’t suspect from this skilfully staged opening that Pickup on South Street would be a film especially notable for its bubbling, effervescent screenplay, and yet that is exactly what Fuller delivers, especially once Thelma Ritter enters as police informant, Moe. Though she has always shone in supporting roles, her impact here is sizeable enough to stand next to Richard Widmark and Jean Arthur as our romantic leads, lifting what could have almost been a throwaway character to a career-best performance. She is confident, chatty, and fully understands the savvy power that Moe holds over everyone else, and it is through this marvellous characterisation that her death packs an even greater punch than it might have otherwise, setting up tremendous stakes for our surviving couple.

One of Thelma Ritter’s best performances – she is confident, chatty, and street-smart, selling ties as a front for her work as a police informant.

It is upon those unlikely lovers, Skip and Candy, that Fuller absolutely delights in hanging his camera, recognising the power of both these actors when left alone together. All throughout the film Fuller’s camera moves like its own character, tracking in and out of close-ups and weaving through scenes with intrigue, though in Skip and Candy’s first official meeting after the subway incident he lets it linger on their nuzzling faces for two straight minutes. Skip’s intimate seduction only thinly masks his sly interrogation, though with soft murmuring and sensual kissing like that, we can’t blame Candy for falling right into his trap. Meanwhile, Leigh Harline’s smooth, jazzy score lays the eroticism on thick, lending an extra salacious edge to these stakes of life-and-death.

This film is just burning with passion in the dialogue, performances, and blocking.
An excellent frame here, using the bars of the bedhead to isolate Skip.

Though there are other characters floating around this story who make their own mark, it is predominantly through Skip, Candy, and Moe that Fuller drives his powerful narrative, even bringing it full circle back to the opening subway train where Skip’s pickpocketing skills once again prove useful in lifting a handgun from a Communist spy. Pickup on South Street is a triumph of writing, character, and stylistic camerawork for Fuller, and it is in the marriage of all three that he crafts a compelling thriller soaked in the fizzing tension of Cold War stealth and espionage.

Mirroring in the narrative bookends, bringing this scene from the beginning…
…back into this story at the end. Skip’s pickpocketing skills are both the cause for this narrative’s complications and the resolution.

Pickup on South Street is not currently available to stream in Australia.


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