Pickup On South Street (1953)

Pickup On South Street (1953)

I am ambivalent about Pickup On South Street. Somehow the gestalt is off: the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.

A weak story is propped up by Sam Fuller’s spirited direction and strong performances from the two female leads. Thelma Ritta received a deserved Academy Award Nomination for her role as the bag lady with soul. Jean Peters is great as the gutsy B-girl, and Richard Widmark makes the sparks fly in his scenes with Peters. The repartee in Fuller’s script is great and adds to the enjoyment. But I was left flat by the pat resolution and feel-good ending.

While Pickup On South Street is not readily identifiable as a noir as it does not follow the genre’s conventions, there is a noir sensibility. Flawed characters are portrayed sympathetically and redeemed by their essential humanity. As Fuller said in a 70s interview, he is not really concerned with the wider “reds under the bed” plot, but with how the drama of the lives affected plays out.

Pickup On South Street (1953)

But the flaws in the film are there and limit its impact. The strongest scene in the film should have been when the bag-lady, Moe, confronted late at night in her apartment by the commie stooge, goes into a relatively long monologue on her fate. An excellent performance by Thelma Ritta is undermined by an unconvincing delay, as the stooge waits for her to finish her story (which he is patently not interested in) before plugging her.

Recommended but over-rated.

4 thoughts on “Pickup On South Street (1953)”

  1. Another title that improves more and more with repeated viewings.

    The cinematography of Joseph MacDonald (Niagara, Call Northside 777, Panic in the Streets, My Darling Clementine, Viva Zapata!, Yellow Sky, The Street with No Name, The Dark Corner) combines the great 20th Century Fox studio set design seamlessly with stock NYC location footage to depict a very believe-able 3 layered Manhattan. From vaulting suspension bridges overhead, against a backdrop of Brooklyn waterfront warehouses across to a lower East Side, East River, pier-scape, with a catwalk to a crumbling bait shack, butted up to the border of Chinatown with its grifters, flophouses, cigarette machines, B-girls, and tattoo parlors perched above the labyrinthine passages of the subways with their human drain ways from the surface

    Interior of swaying rush hour subway car is a neat sequence that introduces Peters, Boushey, Widmark and the plot:

    After a station stop where various riders both exit and enter the car as the train starts and sways we watch as patches of Widmark, a hat brim, a corer of his eye, come into view as he jostles his way through the car of commuters until he stands opposite floozie “I’ve “kissed” a lot of guys” Peters. And we all know what she really means.

    All of the major actors are great in their roles. Ritter in probably her best performance as Moe, she is sly, shrewd, and funny in her scenes with G Man Bouchey and cop Vye, woman to woman matter of fact with Peters, motherly with Widmark, fearless with Kiley. Fuller did an outstanding job on the screenplay and was spot on in the dialogs.

    Other highlights:

    Watch for Peters dickering with Vic Perry (Lightning Louie) in a Chinese restaurant (Perry was a real pick-pocket and was a technical advisor on that aspect of the movie.), and the brutal fight Peters has with Kiley is convincing.

    Widmark is most excellent in what is the culmination of all his three time looser wise ass roles, and there is real chemistry in the on screen relationship between Widmark and Peters that sparks once they quit playing each other while jockeying for the microfilm. Some question the transition to romance, but it’s meant to be a little off the wall. Moe points out how Skip is some kind of chick magnate. Moe she cant figure how women seem to fall for him, I’d say it is probably the most successful depiction of a relationship in a noir, and Fuller gives it plenty of time to stew and marinate. If it survives past the end credits is anybody’s guess, but the deck is stacked against them. Peters is a real cutie in this, its a shame she cut her career way too short.

    Great score by Leigh Harline, Another 10/10 for me. The demise of the studio system really is apparent in Fullers later noirs


  2. Thanks Ray. Great to have your take. The Widmark/Peters relationship has echoes in the pairing of Sterling Hayden and Jean Hagen in The Asphalt Jungle. For me these atypical ‘romances’ have a pathos that grows out of the vulnerability of the noir protagonist who is trapped in a life that can end in only one way. The women that fall for them see that ‘softness’, the essential humanity buried deep inside. Which reminds me of another such romance – Bogart and Lupino in High Sierra.


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