Be honest: When was the last time you weren’t a recently sprung three-time-losing, two-bit cannon sitting on a hot rock with no better recourse or care than to grift muffins on the subway circuit, or something to that effect?
Maybe you don’t identify with or fully understand what the fuck it is I’m asking; all the more reason, really, for getting to know Pickup on South Street, Sam Fuller’s ode to the rough rabble art of pickpocket chicanery and the function of courage and friendship in the thick of a Cold War urban underbelly.
PoSS is a sleek shock of chiaroscuro grandeur. Its characters are the mile-a-minute argot-hucking clevers you can expect to grace even a middling noir, but come beautifully, brutifully to life under Fuller’s shrewd direction. Beginning with the teeming mystique of a peak-hour metro car, Fuller reels the viewer in with a purse-picking so abrupt and ambiguously shot that the detectives’ exchange —“What happened?” “Not sure yet.” — comes off as a rib directed at the audience that ends scene and commences the whole shifty thing with one blow.
What happened, we learn soon after, is that Skip (Richard Widmark), a perfectly anti-social, snarly-mouthed, thrice-caught pickpocket living on borrowed time in a stilted harbor bait house, has just swiped the nuclear-warhead-recipe-containing microfilm that’s in transit from a communist spy syndicate to the Soviet government, courtesy a plucky but unaware Candy, who’s thinking she’s just sticking her chin way out for ex-boyfriend Joey, who is really a coward-creep working for said syndicate. So the police are ON IT. But not without the help of the film’s professional stoolie and best character, Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter!).
Moe Williams is a necktie-hawking, sharp-as-a-tack freelance informer scraping by at the end of her days by using all she knows about the criminal underclass with whom she at least commiserates. You see, it’s a fraught relationship. With the cost of living and frankfurters going up, Moe must ply her information trade with some, but not much, discernment. Fuller made this film about grifting as an art form, of which Moe is chief connoisseur and appraiser.
Fuller was personally admonished by J. Edgar Hoover over dinner for what were perceived to be anti-American sentiments throughout the film. While Skip is neither patriot nor turncoat, he’s the hero, and an anti-establishment loner heavy; Hoover and his team of secret police were pissed. So, too, were some leftists disappointed with the film’s apparent anti-communist antipathy, which comes up in Moe’s final scene, where she is asked what she has against commies, and she answers “I don’t know anything about commies. All I know is I don’t like ‘em.” Fuller sought to dispel the suspicions of both sides in an interview, insisting that, as a writer, all sides must be written: “And that was the way a lot of people felt. This was a boogeyman, and expressed what a lot of people felt.”
It does come as a shock that Fuller has Moe, an elderly indigent outsider-insider woman with no family or benefits to speak of—working to eat and save enough to avoid being buried at Potter’s field, where even after death she would be relegated to America’s lower caste—reciting anti-communist propaganda for the film’s greatest scene as it is her first and only expression of group identity, albeit in the negative. However, I think Moe’s take is the fulcrum for Fuller’s radically nonpartisan depiction of a greater extrinsic tragedy taking place in America and elsewhere, then and now, to which both oppressors and oppressed are subject as they fail to see their entrapment for the flux of history and indoctrination. Cry your eyes out, if that’s your thing (it’s mine).
Pickup on South Street
dir. Samuel Fuller
Part of the ongoing series: The Complete Samuel Fuller