Updated: Jan 30
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Pickpocket artist Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) eyes his next mark, Candy (Jean Peters), and steals her wallet while they ride the New York City subway.
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“PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET” – THE CRITERION COLLECTION”
Blu-ray; 1953; Not Rated
Best extra: An enclosed 28-page booklet with three essays
SEVEN DAYS out of jail, pickpocket Skip McCoy – a great performance by Richard Widmark (“Kiss of Death,” “Panic in the Streets”) – is back in his old stomping ground. Spotting his next target, he maneuvers a crowded New York City subway, where he skillfully opens Candy’s (Jean Peters) pocketbook like a surgeon.
One problem: He doesn’t know two FBI agents are watching. They’ve been shadowing Candy, who’s carrying a piece of top-secret microfilm for ex-boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley), to a Communist spy ring.
Director Samuel Fuller’s thriller speeds along at a blistering pace showcasing trademark film noir camera work and brutal violence. The ex-journalist, novelist, and World War II vet, also wrote the script from Dwight Taylor’s story.
(1) “Pickup on South Street” premiered in Los Angeles on May 29, 1953, and opened three weeks later in New York City. (2&3) FBI agent Zara (Willis B. Bouchey) and his partner Enyart (Jerry O’Sullivan) have followed the attractive woman onto the subway. (4-6) McCoy keeps looking straight ahead inside the crowded subway car, while his fingers do the work.
The accompanying booklet, which includes a short essay by director Martin Scorsese, is my favorite. “If you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema,” he says. “Sam’s movies are blunt, pulpy, [and] occasionally crude, lacking any sense of delicacy or subtlety.”
Scorsese recounts their first meeting after a 1970s screening of Fuller’s western, “Forty Guns” (1957) starring Barbara Stanwyck. Scorsese and Fuller talked for hours, continuing from the theater to their cars. He recalls his first Fuller movie, “I Shot Jesse James” (1949), at the impressionable age of seven. He and his father rode the bus to a theater in Manhattan. “The movie more than lived up to its promise,” he says. “Sam gets right to the heart of it – the way it feels to betray and to be betrayed.”
“Being on [‘Pickup’s’ sets] was like being transported back to the beguiling Manhattan of my journalism days.” — Samuel Fuller, writer/director
The booklet also contains excerpts from Fuller’s 2002 memoir, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.” Fox studio tycoon Darryl F. Zanuck had given him a script centering on a woman lawyer who falls in love with a criminal she’s defending for murder. “I liked the idea,” Fuller says. But, knew from his newspaper days that a courtroom drama would take too “long to play out.”
(1) The corner of West 6th Street and Grand Avenue in Los Angeles subs for Manhattan, as Candy dashes from the subway station with the FBI agents on her tail. (2&3) Once inside the office building she realizes her wallet has been stolen and she returns to her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) with the bad news. (4) Police captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) and Agent Zara question stoolie Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter) on possible suspects. She gives up eight names and Zara IDs McCoy from the police mugshots.
He pitched the storyline of an outlaw and his gal to Zanuck, its protagonist a “few rungs lower on the ladder of criminality.” Hence the birth of Widmark’s Skip McCoy, a “small-time thief and pickpocket, a wily guy who lives in the shadow of petty criminality.” Zanuck had his doubts, but gave the project a green light. McCoy is known as a “cannon” on the streets, with three convictions. “Completely anti-social, he’s an outsider who doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the world. The only use he has for a newspaper is to conceal his nimble fingers.”
He describes Candy, the subway mark, as “a good-looking, streetwise dame with a checked past.” Fuller assembled an excellent gang of supporting characters that include Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) of the NYPD’s anti-pickpocket brigade. Tiger was suspended for six months without pay because he hit McCoy; he now aims to put Skip away for life. On a visit to New York, Fuller met Detective Dan Campion, who provided several background stories as he knew “every cannon in the city.”
Thelma Ritter plays stoolie Moe Williams, who’s trying to save enough money for a “decent cemetery plot.” Ritter, also known for “All About Eve,” and Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Fuller says he saw plenty of these characters firsthand when he was a young crime reporter for the tabloid New York Evening Graphic in the 1920s. “They are individualists, trusting no one, changes in governments, intellectual labels, and fashion.”
The opening was filmed on the Fox backlot with dozens of extras on a subway car. “People are packed together ... like sardines.” Fuller orchestrated the scene without a single word of dialogue, as McCoy moves closer and closer to his victim. He doesn’t realize there’s microfilm containing a patent for a chemical formula in Candy's purse. “Are you waving the flag at me?” McCoy asks the FBI agent who grills him to give up the microfilm.
Oscar-winning production designer Lyle Wheeler (“Gone with the Wind,” “All About Eve,” “Rebecca,” “Laura“) worked wonders,” says Fuller, who was stuck in Hollywood shooting the film. “He made Skip’s shack on the waterfront look just right,” describing the “rickety wooden things built on pilings” he saw on the East River while growing up in NYC. “Two-bit criminals lived down there. They’d put their beer into wooden crates and, with a rope and pulley, lowered their drinks into the river.” A couple of scenes were filmed in downtown L.A. subbing for Manhattan.
Fuller based the microfilm subplot on German physicist Klaus Fuchs, a freelance spy based in England, who sold secrets on microfilm to the Soviets. “There was a general paranoia in our country about Communists. I wanted to take a poke at the idiocy of the Cold War climate of the 1950s,” he says. He viewed Joey as a guy who’d “work for any ‘ism’ if there was a payoff.”
(1&2) McCoy lives in a fishing shack on the East River, while NYPD detectives Winoki (Milburn Stone) and MacGregor (Henry Slate) have come to arrest him. (3&4) Capt. Tiger and Agent Zara watch from an upstairs window as McCoy is escorted into the police station. (5&6) Tiger and Zara promise the theft charges will be dropped if he returns the microfilm found inside Candy’s wallet. “That film you stole had government information on it - classified,” says Zara. “We’ve been following this girl for months.” McCoy responds, “Are you waving the flag at me?”
During a recent 34-minute interview, author/film critic Imogen Sara Smith (“Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City”) gives her take on “Pickup on South Street.” She says the director’s first love was journalism; Fuller was always drawn to characters on the “margins of society.” He would put them “front and center”; the film reflects his reporter’s eye for human interest stories, and the “familiar holes and corners of New York.”
The disc includes a 1989 interview with Fuller. He lights up a huge cigar as Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel starts firing questions. There’s also a French TV documentary in which Fuller breaks down the opening frame-by-frame.
The folks at Criterion are touting a new 4K restoration from a scan of a 35mm negative (1.33:1 aspect ratio), most likely from a duplicate negative. Eureka! Based in the U.K., they released a similar Blu-ray nearly a half-dozen years ago from a 4K scan. The new Criterion version has a slightly better black level and contrast. Both extract a good dose of natural film grain from start to finish. Highlights are controlled and detailed with balanced grayscale. Tens of thousands of marks and scratches have been removed to give Fuller’s film a fresh look.
The original mono track has been cleaned up, removing pops and other noises for a nice straightforward soundtrack.
After “Pickup on South Street” was released, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover got a private screening. He obviously hated it, calling it “anti-American.” While the French considered it pro-Communist and removed any reference to the spy ring which became drug smugglers in new, dubbed dialogue.
How did Fuller work? “I learned something and tried to pass it on. Don’t talk about plot, show it.”
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1&2) McCoy takes the microfilm to the New York Public Library and uses the machine to scan the film. (3) Candy shows up at McCoy’s shack looking for the film, and he knocks her unconscious, and then pours beer and kicks her to wake her up. (4&5) Her jaw is injured and McCoy starts to rub it and the sexual tension builds.
(1-4) The Communist conspirators: Headquarters (Parley Baer), Joey, Candy, and Fenton (George Eldredge).
(1) Joey confronts Moe for McCoy’s address. (2&3) Candy gets the film back from McCoy with hopes to clear his name. But, Zara and Tiger ask her to return the film to Joey, so they can follow him to the Red ringleader. (4) Joey is on the run.