Tuesday, February 28, 2012

65. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)

This Samuel Fuller thriller -- about a pickpocket named Skip (Richard Widmark), a "muffin" named Candy (Jean Peters) whose purse he rifles on a subway train, and the commie boyfriend (Richard Kiley) who was using her purse to transport a microfilm strip of atomic secrets -- is one of his most engrossing, perfectly realized films. I had the opportunity to see it recently on a friend's home projection screen set-up and, though I have a fairly large screen at home, seeing it this way was an object lesson in how Fuller's grandiose, operatic vision benefits by being writ large on a theater-sized screen. Emotions that otherwise look outsized, especially when bestowed on the lowest crust of society, suddenly seem in balance while moments of intimacy, such as the remarkable scene of Skip soothing the dame he's just roughed up, suck us in so close we can feel the heat between them and the extent to which he's manipulating her willing emotions.

Likewise, this is a movie about New York City. It helps to see it full-sized to appreciate how Fuller depicted it as both metropolis and microcosm. His NYC contains a world and an underworld as well as an invisible world bent on conquering both. It's usually Fuller's style to go with big and broad brushstrokes, but here it's his attention to minute details that give the film its reality, like the way Skip uses a crate and a pulley to keep his beer cold because his houseboat doesn't have a refrigerator. There's also an important scene that takes place in a train station -- an impressive standing set on the Fox lot that you may recognize from Fritz Lang's MANHUNT, the Falseface episode of TV's BATMAN and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Widmark is at the top of his game, pulling Candy much of the time for his own selfish gain, grinning at her mischievously and cruelly whenever her back is turned, and his satisfying character arc is fully complemented by Peters, whose Candy (a role Betty Grable turned down, leading to her studio suspension) is arguably the warmest, sweetest, most believably confused and enamored heroine Fuller ever wrote. But even her performance is eclipsed by Thelma Ritter's Moe Williams, a necktie street vendor turned informant who is carefully saving whatever dough she can scrape together to avoid a burial in Potter's Field. Considering what an acerbic comic figure she has been up to that point, her final scene opposite Kiley is terribly moving in its tenderness and humanity, and it won her a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Fuller (whose script is ripe with some delicious double entendres) can be briefly seen as a cigar-puffing attendant in a men's public bathroom. See it and, if at all possible, see it big.

Viewed on Criterion DVD.

1 comment:

  1. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is a Sam Fuller masterpiece. Agree with all you have said and if you haven't already seen them catch Fuller's other films like HOUSE OF BAMBOO, FORTY GUNS, PARK ROW, MERRILL'S MARAUDERS...etc. Know you must have seen them all, but they are all wonderful films. (Was Clint Eastwood referring to him regards directing by firing a gunshot at the beginning of a take hence his own DISPLEASURE at ever yelling ACTION or CUT on SET!?)

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