Richard Widmark must be among the most atypical leading men in 1950s American cinema. He isn’t associated with a distinct screen persona and there’s nothing “starry” or especially charismatic about him: thin lips, a pallid face, slicked-back hair and a distracted expression that’s sometimes punctuated by a cocky grin, as if he unexpectedly remembered that funny things can happen in the world. But he was very effective in a certain kind of role in film noirs of the early 1950s – as a guy who was basically a heel or a loser (with maybe the odd redeeming quality) but whom you couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for. I think in particular of his con-artist-turned-victim Harry Fabian in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (a film with a grim ending that comes like a blow to the viewer’s solar plexus).
A Widmark film I saw recently was Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, about New York lowlifes becoming inadvertently involved in a Communist plot that could be hazardous to American security. Fuller’s movies were known for their sparse, direct quality (Martin Scorsese once said that having worked as a reporter, Fuller knew “how to tell a story, how to cut right to the quick of it...He has to hook you with the headline, with the prose”) and Pickup on South Street is among the best of them. It’s only 80 minutes long and within that running time it tells a story very compactly, with dark humour and well-etched characters.
The tone is set by a beautifully taut, economical opening scene in a crowded New York subway train. The elements of this scene include a pretty woman holding a purse, clinging to a handrail; two men – one young, the other middle-aged – watching her discreetly from a corner of the carriage; and a third man – the Richard Widmark character – slowly making his way through the crowd until he’s standing right next to the woman, the two of them swaying gently with the movement of the train but never really making eye contact. The newcomer takes out a paper and pretends to read it but in close-up we see his fingers opening the woman’s purse and taking out something from it. The two men watching from a distance see this and are instantly on alert. When the train stops at a station, Widmark dashes out and the two men try to follow him but the doors close on them.
“What’s going on?” the younger man asks, “I’m not sure,” says his older partner.
At this point, the viewer isn’t sure either: there are many ways in which the scene and the relationship between its four players can be interpreted. It’s only a few minutes later, as the various plot strands reveal themselves, that we understand exactly what happened. Candy (played by the lovely Jean Peters, who really should have been cast in more films of this type) was carrying a strip of microfilm that her former boyfriend Joey had instructed her to pass to one of his contacts. She doesn’t know that Joey is a Communist sympathiser and that the film contains government secrets being sold to the “Reds”, but the two men watching her in the train are Federal agents who have been tipped off. And the Widmark character, Skip McCoy, is a small-time pickpocket who just happens to choose Candy as his next victim and ends up in possession of the microfilm. Like another chance encounter on a train in another early 1950s film, this incident will have snowballing consequences for all concerned.
The most interesting character in Pickup on South Street– and the key to its theme of national interest overriding personal well-being – is a “pickpocket stoolie” named Moe, who provides the police with tips about various small-time criminals. Moe is played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter, who was one of the best characters actors of the time, particularly well known for her straight-talking or downright acerbic characters in films like Rear Window (as Jimmy Stewart’s nurse whose many memorable lines include “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get out of their own house and look in for a change” and “He better get that trunk out of there before it starts to leak”). She never turns down a chance to make a quick buck by ratting on acquaintances, but beneath the hard-edged exterior we see a vulnerable side: she’s a poor woman and her great ambition is to die with enough money to be buried in a decent place. She and Skip are kindred spirits in a sense – Skip lives in a dingy waterfront shack (he doesn’t have a fridge, so he lowers a crate of beer into the water to keep it cool) – and they understand each other. “Moe’s all right, she’s gotta eat,” says Skip philosophically when he learns that Moe took 50 dollars from the cops for information about him.
“Some people peddle lamb chops or apples, I peddle information,” Moe says cynically at one point, but she draws the line at some things: even she won’t have anything to do with selling information to the big bad Communists. And this is where Pickup on South Street allows its social message to take centrestage. For me, the film was slightly marred by a (relatively) happy, feel-good ending that seemed incongruous. To an extent I can understand the reason for it: in another noir film there would have been no redemption for the characters played by Widmark, Ritter and Peters, but in this one, when there’s a huge external enemy to be stared down in the form of – gasp! – evil Reds, it’s possible for pickpockets and informers to become heroes. (Remember, this is 1953.)
Early in the film, Skip cocks his eyebrows at an agent who tells him that if he refuses to turn over the microfilm he’ll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb. “Are you waving the flag at me?” Skip asks amusedly, and goes on to make an offhand comment about patriotic eyewash. This suggests that he’s so busy trying to make ends meet, to survive as an individual in a cutthroat world, that he has no time for lofty nationalistic concerns. But Skip does come around in the end, and it might be said that his decision, which in the context of the story is for the “greater good”, isn’t necessarily good for the film itself. The last couple of minutes left me with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling, as if a rude beam of sunlight had been granted entry into a place where it had no business intruding. Commie-hatred trumps the noir mood. No complaints about the rest of the film though.
P.S. More on that opening scene in the train: in an interview that’s one of the special features on my DVD, Samuel Fuller talks about his fascination with the subway as a location for a dramatic scene. “People are a million miles away from each other when they’re on a crowded subway train,” he says, “Even when they are pressed up against each other so close that their noses are practically touching, they are careful not to make eye contact or to intrude on each other’s privacy.”
The special features also include the text of an interview with Richard Widmark, who calls Fuller “the Grandma Moses of filmmaking...he was very good at a lean, tough approach” and mentions that the films they made in those days were treated as “assignments”, with very little indepth discussion about the art or craft involved. “I was under contract and in those days I was making four, five pictures a year. I finished one on Saturday, started another on Monday. They gave you your next script and you do it or you go on suspension...We just did it. No talk, no discussions about motivation, no baloney. Just do it.” It’s amazing how many high-quality movies were produced under these carefully controlled conditions.
[A few earlier posts on old films: The Killing, Eraserhead, Fearless Vampire Killers, Swing Time, The Talk of the Town, Nanook of the North, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Paths of Glory, Duck Soup, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, Trouble in Paradise]