My only experience of Samuel Fuller prior to this was a viewing of The Big Red One which I managed to catch upon it’s re-release a few years ago. It was probably my lack of experience more than anything, but I remember being distinctly underwhelmed. Oh, and there was also his memorable cameo in Godard’s Pierrot le fou which I found quite groovy (“Emotion!”) but yes, point is that I’m underversed in my Fuller. Pickup on South Street has always been on my radar for some unknown reason, so when I noticed the Criterion edition going on the cheap I instantly snapped it up with the intent of rectifying my Fuller-heresy.
Anyway, I’m really really impressed. I find the film’s concerns surprisingly fresh, particularly with regards to its focus on the New York underclasses. The precision with which Fuller details his principal characters’ humble lifestyles is complemented by a no-holds-barred approach, frequently allowing for a sort of brash realism to rear its head underneath the layers of style: as if Joey’s attack on Candy wasn’t horrifying enough in its own right, the fact that it feels so plausible in the precarious world that they both inhabit imbues the scene with a sense of tangibility that results in an even more sobering effect upon the viewer. Fuller has clear empathy for those on society’s fringes which motivates his consistent refusal to sentimentalise – if we, as the audience, are to understand these characters at all then it should be on their own difficult terms.
Much of the film’s success in this respect lies in the art of performance. Richard Widmark, an actor with whom I’ve been unacquainted until now, turns his Skip McCoy into a terrific anti-hero. He readily displays the pugnacious belligerence that the role requires, yet there’s also an air of childish insolence about him – an endearing cockiness that demands our affection even though he rarely warrants it. Unsurprisingly however, it’s the divine Thelma Ritter who creates the most memorable impression here. Her character, Moe, is pivotal to the film: she provides the crucial link between both the police and the so-called crooks, as well as Skip and Candy. More than that though, because of the actress’s quiet skill she serves as the film’s pre-eminent tool of audience identification. Ritter flaunts her irresistible knack for wisecracking early on in the film, and that’s especially advantageous here where her character’s an über-streetwise informer. Her bluntness is an extension of the overall tapestry of the film, e.g. the matter-of-fact way in which she states: “I have to go on making a living so I can die.” It’s Moe’s world-weariness however, and the dignity that persists in spite of it, which Ritter excels in communicating. Her final scene is utterly heartbreaking because of her success in conveying such traits.
As much as I adore Thelma here, it’s the film’s engagement with its wider contexts that thrill me above all else. Initially, despite loving what was on-screen, I had issues with the discussion of Communists within the film which made me question whether or not the entire thing was simple McCarthyite propaganda (I know, I know!) However, my basic love of the material convinced me to look deeper and after listening to Fuller’s charming interview on the Criterion DVD, I was reassured: the microfilm at the plot’s core could easily be substituted for another controversial item and little of the film’s meaning would have changed. Or would it? After giving this some further thought I’ve decided that I actually prefer to read the film as a subversive indictment of the dominant institutions’ failure to protect their citizens, and I see the whole “Red Scare” as playing into this?
The characters’ prevailing attitude towards the threat is appropriately summed up by Moe: “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I know one thing, I just don’t like ‘em!” These words speak volumes, for they underline how clueless these people are about the actual nature of the threat, not to mention how entrenched the fear is – even at the very lowest levels of the social hierarchy. Admittedly, the Communist characters in the film are very much designed as the villains which is perhaps enough to justify Moe’s comments in itself. However, consider also the way in which the all-American police force is portrayed – Fuller hardly depicts them in the most positive of lights: they resort to bribery to gain information, suspiciously lurk in street corners as if they were agents themselves, and angrily wield the threat of treason at Skip when he refuses to conform. It’s this latter point which specifically piques my interest thanks to Skip’s response to the accusation: “Are you waving the flag at me?” His dismissal of his patriotic ‘duty’ reveals the furthest extreme of America’s disconnection from its populace: when allegiance to one’s country is a defunct concept thanks to more pressing issues (in this film’s case, that of plain survival.) Taking this into account, Moe’s blind commitment to society becomes ironic as it is this very (capitalist) society that has worn her down and reduced her to selling ties for a dollar. There’s an element of wryness in the plot as a whole too, if we’re willing to view America as defended and saved by it’s petty criminals. The depth to which the film’s socio-political concerns seep is remarkable, and allows for a multitude of complex readings.
So, um, watch it now! And for those who’ve seen it: enlighten me with comments plz!