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The Criterion Collection presents
"Look, mister, I'm so tired, you'd be doing me a big favor if you blew my head off."
DVD ReviewSamuel Fuller may have been the toughest mug ever to direct a major motion picture, and he would have been happy to tell you as much. His movies invariably have a percussive and hard edge to them—he's no master of nuance or the private moment, but in sticking you right in the middle of something, and having you react to it viscerally. This is true of his more outlandish pictures (e.g. Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, that twin bill of repression and acting out) and his rough war movies, too (e.g., The Big Red One), which are informed by his combat experience in World War II.
And there's sort of a stroke of genius at the heart of Pickup on South Street. The menace and paranoia of the Cold War were undoubtedly part of where the atmospherics of film noir came from, and here, Fuller moves that out of the shadows and into the light—what serves as subtext in lots of other movies is right up and at us in this one. Richard Widmark plays Skip McCoy, a master pickpocket just out of the clink; he returns to his trade on the New York subway, and picks the wrong purse. It belongs to slinky Candy (the smoking Jean Peters), who is serving as an unsuspecting dupe for some Communist agents—in with the lipstick and the compact is a reel of microfilm, state secrets pilfered from the U.S. Government and intended to find its way into the wrong Red hands.
And so the chase is on—Candy and the guy who put her up to it (Richard Kiley, not yet dreaming the impossible dream) have to find that film; and they've been made by the cops, who are after Skip, too. A few dollars to Moe (Thelma Ritter, always a winner), the local stoolie, gets her to cough up Skip's name—who will get to the microfilm first? And will Skip know just how hot his stash is?
The movie runs a brisk eighty minutes, and Fuller makes the most of it. His dialogue is full of jargon and wisecracks and euphemism—Candy is never called a whore in name, for instance, but it's explained to her: "You've been knocked around a lot. You know people who know people"—and no matter what her past is, Peters burns up the screen in the role. She's not a great actress, but she's pouring out of her dresses, and she's smoldering, especially in her scenes with Widmark—the romance between the two is probably the least convincing part of the picture, but the two of them are having big fun here, and so are we. And Widmark is of course one of the all-time great screen bad guys, even when he's not pushing old ladies down the stairs. He lives in a shack on the Hudson on the boulevard of the film's title—it must have been something of a writerly conceit even in 1953, and if these places ever existed, they were pretty much done away with by the construction of Battery Park City in the late 1960s—and he's got an almost maternal affection for Moe, even though she ratted him out. But it's a movie that ratifies that old notion of honor among thieves; and even more daringly, speaks truth to power, in reminding the authorities that they haven't cornered the market on patriotism. As Candy says to Skip: "I'd rather have a live pickpocket than a dead traitor."
Fuller is also, thankfully, a terrifically visual filmmaker, happy to have long sequences play out with no dialogue, and he makes great use of props and locations—Skip's beer cooler does Whittaker Chambers' pumpkin one better, and I don't know that any movie makes better use of a dumbwaiter. The propulsive energy of the movie never lags, and it's more memorable than some other pictures better than three times its length.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Joe MacDonald's striking period photography looks smashing in this transfer, with deep rich blacks against the glowing whites, in classic noir style. Peters' white dresses seemingly flow across the screen, and everything is rich and deep and saturated. Just a few inevitable marks and scratches keep this from being the Platonic noir print.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: A good, clean transfer makes everything audible, with a nice balance on the limited mono track between dialogue and soundtrack.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Fixed Bayonets, House of Bamboo, China Gate, Forty Guns, Hell and High Water (2), Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss
Also on the disc is Headlines and Hollywood, an essay by Jeb Brody, that's an overview of Fuller's life and career; a gallery of Fuller trailers; and the text of a 1994 interview with Richard Widmark, discussing his friendly working relationship with Fuller. You'll also find a Fuller poster filmography, featuring some gorgeous international images; and a gallery of photos from the set and publicity stills. They're intercut with quotes from Fuller, and the most startling image may be the one color shot, of Peters and Widmark. Finally on the disc are a set of illustrations by Russell Christian, commissioned by Scenario magazine in 1988 for their publication of the film's screenplay.
It's worth taking a read of the stuff in the accompanying booklet, too, where you'll find Martin Scorsese's introduction to Fuller's autobiography; an excerpt from same, on the making of Pickup on South Street; and an essay by Luc Sante, who answers the question: if Jean Peters is so sexy, why wasn't she in more movies? Because she married Howard Hughes, that's why.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsSomewhere up there, Sam Fuller is throwing back a few, lighting up a cigar, and smiling at the release of this DVD, which shows off one of his best efforts to great advantage. Smile when you say that, sister.
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