' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Pickup on South Street (1953)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Pickup on South Street (1953)

God bless microfilm. The term microfilm just sounds like a Macguffin, don’t you think? The term MacGuffin was coined by Alfred Hitchcock and has been defined by the esteemed Roger Ebert as being “the device which explains everything by explaining nothing.” Microfilm was at the core of Hitchock’s “Notorious” (my favorite Hitch film), the 1946 thriller which was set at the tail-end of Nazi Germany and on the precipice of the Cold War. Microfilm was also at the core of maverick Samuel Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street”, the 1953 thriller set amidst the Cold War and McCarthyism.

Clearly Fuller was no friend to communism. We know this not simply because the chief villain is a communist spy attempting to get microfilm with requisite top secret government information into the hands of the enemy, but because he smacks around a woman and shoots her in the face. That’s how highly Fuller seems to think of the reds.

Then again, he does not seem very fond of anyone, save for what one might consider the lowest common denominator. This is tightly-coiled, insistently dark film in which the anti-hero (this is all anti-heroes and villains) has no business in doing anything for love of country.

Our anti-hero would be Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark, playing the part with a perpetual sneer), a “three-time loser” fresh outta the clink on a theft charge. One more bust and he’ll get put away for life. Not that this bothers him one bit as he demonstrates in the opening scene on a subway car when he deftly picks the purse of Candy (Jean Peters, alluring sass). Candy, however, was being tailed by a cop literally named Tiger (Murvyn Vye) since she was transporting the aforementioned top secret microfilm to her jittery ex Joey (Richard Kiley, all nerves and jangles) who, unbeknownst to her, is in league with the commies. So ‘round and ‘round they’ll go, all in the same of microfilm.

Essentially that’s all the story “Pickup on South Street” requires. Candy finds out that Skip has the microfilm and tries to get it back. Skip finds out how much the microfilm is worth and aims to earn a heavy sum for it. Tiger suspects that Skip has the microfilm and hassles him. Joey’s superiors come down on him for mucking up the microfilm’s delivery and he starts to sweat. Candy falls for Skip and vice-versa and they go in together. That last one might come across lovey-dovey but if these are lovebirds then, rest assured, they are ornery seagulls just fighting for scraps.

The film’s very real charge stems from character and atmosphere, such as in Skip’s living quarters – a shack along the East River in which he cools the bottled beer he’s always sipping between sneers. These people are scraping the bottom line, barely getting by, operating on a code that puts survival front and center. Perhaps the film’s most transfixing character is Mo (Thelma Ritter, nominated for an Oscar), an endearing loudmouth who ekes out a living forcing people to buy crummy ties and dishing out secrets to the cops about crooks in the underworld for a fee. Initially she coughs up Skip’s identity to the cops and yet when Skip learns of this betrayal he hardly seems upset. “She’s gotta eat,” he says.

And when Moe finally meets her maker, it is Skip who will seek justice in her name. “Pickup on South Street” could be read as anti-communism while at the same time it could be read as anti-American (“Are you waving the flag at me?”) but it made me think of the famed E.M. Forster line that goes “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I should hope I would have the guts to betray my country.” If anything, it’s populist.

Whether it’s a three-time loser, a down-on-her-luck dame or a hardscrabble woman selling names and ties for cash, they’re all people - a quaint viewpoint, to be sure, but one Fuller renders with a raw and enthralling authenticity. Check it out.

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