#248. Pickup on South Street

I’m way farther down on the List than where we are here, with the essays, and so when I watched Shock Corridor a few weeks ago, a noir-ish ‘60s thriller set in a mental hospital, I thought it was the List’s debut of director Sam Fuller—of whom I knew only that he was roguish and a huge influence for Scorsese and Tarantino and probably De Palma. A novelist, a journalist, a hardass and a crank who came across, in interviews, kinda the way John Ford does in that particularly bristly one he gives to Peter Bogdanovich on a set somewhere in the desert.  

Director Sam Fuller

But no, Pickup on South Street was apparently his debut, and as I think back on it, looking for what I guess you’d call the Sam Fuller Touch, I’m not sure I’m seeing it in anything that I remember of the technique so much as in the subject matter.

            Far and away the movie’s biggest delight is Thelma Ritter, who plays a criminal informant with a heart of gold named Mo, but what I most enjoyed apart from that is how, in a time when The Bomb and Cold War paranoia are on everyone’s mind and invading every script, this is the first movie of the 1950s to really dig its hands into the topic and confront it. And I guess that’s a byproduct of Fuller’s formative days as a journalist? There’s a similar vibe to Shock Corridor, in which a journalist hears about a murder at a mental institution and then has himself committed in order to investigate.

            Getting into the ugly material. Which, I’m wondering: is this a sign that we’re in a newer, edgier, less censorial decade than the ‘40s? Because kinda like the wartime audience that shat on The Magnificent Ambersons because they said it wasn’t the right time for our country to be mired in melodrama, I don’t think a wartime audience would have stood for really confrontational cinema that not only looked directly into the face of our greatest collective fear, but expressed doubt about our government’s ability to handle it.

            The story here, real quick, revolves around a pickpocket who snatches a woman’s purse without realizing that she had some microfilm in there that has some key to creating a nuclear weapon. It’s McGuffin as fuck.

            The movie’s really easy to follow but I’m only realizing now, in tryna summarize it, how complicated the story is—which is a timeless sign of a good storyteller, I think, is when (s)he makes a complicated story deceptively simple. Anyway. Turns out tha the lady with the microfilm in her bag, Candy (Jean Peters), is romantically involved with a sinister cowardly dude who’s tryna sell that microfilm to some terrorist agents. The feds were following Candy to see where the microfilm would end up. Now the microfilm is gone and they’ve gotta get criminal informant Mo (Thelma Ritter) to help them find the guy who snatched it.

Richard Widmark (right) plays the anti-hero who’s scummy and odious but also I think has Fuller’s respect. He’s exploiting the ineptitude of the feds in order to get his way so he can go on and live his own life.

            There’s a piece on Criterion’s website about Ritter being one of the great character actors, and it’s premature for me to wax about how great she is (since a big part of my affection for her comes from a small turn she gets in the forthcoming Rear Window), but she plays the role of Mo with such cheeky tenderness and finally, in a hopeless and heart-twisting scene where she’s staring down the barrel of a gun, she brings to the role a gravitas and grace you wouldn’t expect of something that…well, it’s essentially pulp. Fuller elevates it just with his handling of the material, his measuring of the story, but Ritter’s contribution is immeasurable. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She lost to Gloria Graham for The Bad and the Beautiful, which…I can see it.

            But it’s wonderful pulp. I’m delighted to see that his movie’s gotten the Criterion treatment but I was having a really hard time finding it streaming anywhere when I sat down to watch it as the middle title in a triple feature I screened with my cousin Devon. I ended up finding it, of all places, on YouTube. The whole thing. It’s still there, though the aspect ratio is fucked.

            So this is a good one. Give it a shot.  

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