Blu-Ray Review – Pickup on South Street (1953)

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pickup on south street

Sam Fuller brought a much-needed punch to American cinema with his brand of journalistic noir and Pickup on South Street is one of his leanest and meanest films of his long and fascinating career. It’s one of his studio pictures for 20th Century Fox under the supervision of Darryl F. Zanuck, one of the most involved producers of golden age Hollywood with the creative end of things. Despite Fuller working for a major studio right after his independent Park Row (also released in a stunning edition by Masters of Cinema) his characteristic style is all over the film like the lurid black and white images of a tabloid.

Richard Widmark one of the great hard men of the classic noir era plays a pickpocket Skip McCoy (they don’t name them like they use too!) who steals some microfilm from Candy (Jean Peters) but isn’t aware it’s stolen from the government. Candy’s boyfriend is actually a communist spy but she isn’t aware of his political leanings. The communist plot takes almost a backseat to the proceedings, Fuller is much more interested in the down and out desperate characters who occupy this underworld of New York City (shot completely in L.A.) especially the supporting character Thelma Ritter plays who is an informant who sells ties to just scrap by.

Joseph MacDonald’s photography really shows how you can do with so little, he perfectly captures the underbelly of New York City without setting a foot there just as well the on-location shot The Naked City by Jules Dassin.  Thelma Ritter is the obvious stand-out and was even nominated for an Oscar for her performance and is up there in her many great characters roles like the one in Rear Window. Widmark gives one of  the toughest roles of his career and sadly from the early ’60s onwards his career took a nosedive like so many “tough guy” actors of the noir era. Jean Peters is just as good as her co-stars and was cast over Marilyn Monroe who Fuller didn’t think have the same streetwise sex appeal.

The film runs at an unrelenting pace of 80 minutes like so many of Fuller’s best work. The politics of Pickup on South Street are complex, the communists are clearly the bad guys but the film’s “hero” Skip McCoy is decidedly unpatriotic especially since the famous line “Are you waving the flag at me?” and the FBI agents bribe informants. It’s no wonder that then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover hated the film and Sam Fuller and even told him so. Pickup on South Street remains probably the best studio film Fuller directed during the ’50s before he went his own way during the ’60s with possibly his best films Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss.

Masters of Cinema has pulled out all the stops on this release as you always expect from them. The disc includes 3 interviews including one with Sam Fuller for French TV in his usual animation self talking about Pickup on South Street. The booklet includes an essay on the film and excerpts from his autobiography where he discusses Pickup on South Street.

Ian Schultz

Crime, Film Noir | USA, 1953 | Eureka! Video | PG | 17th August 2015 (UK) |Dual Format | Dir.Samuel Fuller | Richard Widmark, Thelma Ritter, Jean Peters, Murvyn Vye