Pickup on South Street (1953): Samuel Fuller’s Cold War Film Noir, Starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter in yet another Oscar-Nominated Performance

Arguably his best movie, Samuel Fuller wrote and directed Pickup on South Street, a powerful Cold War film noir.

The film is well acted by Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and especially Thelma Ritter, who received yet another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.  (With six nominations and no wins, Ritter is one of the Academy’s greatest losers).

Fox’s head Darryl F. Zanuck showed Fuller a script by Dwight Taylor called “Blaze of Glory,” about a woman lawyer falling in love with a criminal she defended. Fuller then asked Zanuck if he would make a story of a lower criminal and his girlfriend that he originally titled Pickpocket, but Zanuck thought that the title was too “European.”  The title was then changed.

Recalling South Street from his work as a crime reporter, Fuller based the role of the police detective on a real-life figure who had been suspended without salary for six months for manhandling a suspect.

While casting, Fuller turned down many actresses for the lead, including Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner, nd Betty Grable (who wanted a dance number).  A week before shooting began, Fuller saw Jean Peters walk into the studio’s commissary–she walked in a sexy, bow-legged style that many prostitutes used–convincing him she was right for the part.

In the first scene, set on a crowded New York subway train, pickpocket Skip McCoy (Widmark) steals Candy’s (Jean Peters) wallet. Unbeknownst to both is the fact that the wallet contains a microfilm of top-secret government information.  Candy was delivering it as a favor to her ex-boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley), unaware of  Joey being a communist spy.

Government agent Zara (Willis Bouchey) puts Candy under surveillance, hoping she would lead to the spy ring.  Zara also enlists Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye), who brings in professional informant Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter) .

Moe gets her asking price, and in exchange gives him a list of eight names, of which he identifies Skip from a mug shot. Zara tries to get Skip to give up the film by stressing its importance and his patriotism, but to no avail.

Joey persuades a reluctant Candy to track down the thief by using her underworld connections. The trail leads to Moe, who sells the same information a second time, knowing that Skip will not mind.

Candy searches Skip’s waterfront shack that night, and when he returns, he sneaks in and knocks her out.  She tries to get the film from him but without success. The second time she visits, he accuses her of being a “commie” and demands $25,000.  Shocked, she declares love for him, but Skip thinks she is acting.

When she returns to Joey, his superior gives him a day to get the film back, and equip him with a gun. Moe tries, but fails, to convince Skip to give the film to the government. Knowing that her strength is failing and she’s dying, Moe refuses to reveal Skip’s address. When she taunts Joey for being a turncoat and a rat, he shoots her dead.

Her death scene is memorable due to her touching monologue, “I’;; never get a proper funeral. You will be doing me a big favor if you blow my head off,” as well as the record which is playing the song “Ma’amselle,” written by directed Edmund Goulding (uncredited) for his Fox’s prestige film, “The Razor’s Edge,” back in 1946. 

Candy blames herself for Moe’s death, but to her dismay, Skip is still willing to deal with Joey. When he starts to leave, she knocks him out with a bottle and takes it to Zara and Tiger. Zara asks her to give Joey the film, so he can lead them to his boss.

When Joey notices that a frame missing, he beats Candy in an attempt to get Skip’s address, then shoots her as she tries to leave. Joey finds the address in her purse.

Joey and an associate go to the shack, but Skip hides underneath. When Joey is ordered to deliver the portion of missing film, Skip follows him to a subway station. He watches as the film is exchanged in a restroom, then knocks out the ringleader and chases after Joey in what is the film’s most energetically staged scene.

At the police station, Tiger holds that Skip will return to his criminal ways, but Skip and Candy, now recovered, depart to start a new life.

The Production Code rejected Fuller’s script for its “excessive brutality and sadistic beatings, of both men and women.”  FBI director J. Edgar Hoover objected to Widmark’s unpatriotic character, especially his line “Are you waving the flag at me?” and the scene of a Federal agent bribing an informer.  Zanuck backed Fuller up, but removed references to the FBI in the film’s advertising, changing the promo line from FBI to the Law.

Cast
Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy
Jean Peters as Candy
Thelma Ritter as Moe
Murvyn Vye as Captain Dan Tiger
Richard Kiley as Joey
Willis Bouchey as Zara

Artistic Status

Pickup on South Street was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1953.

In 2018, it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Soundtrack:

Music plays a crucial role in the plot.  Here is a breakdown of the soundtrack:

1.Main Title 1:06
2. Án Insolent Pickpocket 2:29
3. Skip McCoy 3:12
4. Joey Interrogates Moe 1:40
5. Intruder 1:54
6. Muffin 1:35
7. Again 3:17
8. Candy and Skip 3:59
9. Argument 2:20
10. Ma’amselle 2:54
11. Sorrow 3:48
12. Skip Leaves with Candy 3:3