Sunday, July 05, 2009

Film classics: Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street

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]


  1. This was the first film I'd seen Widmark in (oh TCM how I loved you!), and I was quite surprised I'd never heard of the guy - not even in random movie trivia conversations.

    This film hooked me on him, and I've never really been let down by films starring him - Coma and Death of a Gunfighter stand out in particular.

    I agree about most of his roles being that of a heel, but he also did a lot of anti-hero roles - they just never captured the imagination of the public the way Bogey's characters did.

  2. I was not aware of this movie.I will check it out,thanks.
    Some other Widmark like actors who excelled in greyish roles - Jack Palance, Robert Ryan,James Cagney.
    Speaking of Film Noir, there was this recent movie called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.An excellent example of the genre! Check it out.

  3. Haven't checked any of Fuller's films. He appears to be in fashion these days going by imdb discussions.
    Also want to check out Forty Guns - a Fuller western starring Barbara Stanwyck!

    @Rahul - Cagney, a Widmark-like actor?? I always thought of Cagney as one of the most flamboyant of all the great classic stars. Probably the first great star of the sound era.

  4. Interesting point you made about great movies coming out under highly controlled conditions.

    Some of Hollywood's finest years were during an era when most directors and actors were salaried and also subject to a highly stringent censorship code.

  5. Shrikanth, I used "like" very loosely. You know,Cagney's scene in Public Enemy earned as much notoriety as the Tommy Udo scene.Both of them played bad ass street smart characters etc.

  6. Rahul: I think of Tommy Udo as being something of an anomaly in Widmark's career, even though it was such a flamboyant role and brought him to everyone's attention. I haven't seen all his films, of course, but in everything else I've seen he's been quite low-key. (Apart from those occasional psycho-grins!) The first time I saw him, incidentally, was in Judgement at Nuremberg, where his fine workmanlike performance was drowned in a sea of star power.

    Interesting comparison with Jack Palance, whom I last saw as the egotistical and boorish American movie producer in Godard's Contempt.

  7. Interesting point you made about great movies coming out under highly controlled conditions...

    Shrikanth: that's one of the reasons for Vertigo having such an inflated reputation in the past couple of decades. Critics can't get their heads around the idea that Hitch could make such a deeply personal film within the constraints of the studio system and using contracted stars. In general, this also helps explain the renewed respect given to American cinema of the 1930s-1950s (after a lengthy period when no one took it very seriously).

    I think the enforced discipline - the knowledge that things simply had to be done the way they were in any other job, that there wasn't going to be much catering to artistic moodiness or ego hassles - also helped inherently talented directors, writers, cinematographers and performers to do some of their best work. Even when they weren't necessarily thinking of what they were doing as something that would have lasting value. (I remember William Wyler or John Ford - I forget who - responding to an interviewer's questions with a terse "Look, we weren't thinking about art when we were making those movies - we were just doing our job.")

    Not saying that's the way it was for everyone though - no doubt many great temperamental artists fell by the wayside because they simply couldn't work in controlled conditions, or because they didn't get the right backing for the work they wanted to do. We'll never know about that lot, alas.

  8. ??!: I hope TCM hasn't kept up its deplorable practice of computer-colourising films? Because if anyone were to show me a colourised version of Pickup on South Street (or any other noir film) I'd hang myself immediately.

  9. @J'wock: I'm reminded of Orson Welles' quote - 'The absence of limitations is the enemy of art'. Maybe the production code forced filmmakers to work harder on writing more intelligent, subtler scripts instead of wooing audiences by including superfluous scenes of sex and violence.

    Also, many of the more overtly "artistic" directors in the 60s and 70s (the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Scorsese) were heavily inspired by the countless films churned out by studio factories in the 40s/50s. Godard for instance regards B pictures like Ray's Bigger than Life among the great films of the past century!

  10. "Also, many of the more overtly 'artistic' directors in the 60s and 70s (the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Scorsese) were heavily inspired by the countless films churned out by studio factories in the 40s/50s."

    There are many such examples throughout movie history. As we know, many American and British critics were aghast when the French started championing Hitchcock and calling him one of the great auteurs. When Orson Welles called John Ford's Stagecoach his movie textbook and said he had seen it dozens of times, many people (for whom Welles was a True Artist but Ford was a trader in sentimental, narrative-driven, assembly-line entertainers) couldn't believe it.

    And of course, the revival of interest in the work of directors like Sirk, Fuller and Nicolas Ray (many of whose films were derided in their own time) owes to the French critics as well as to the American "kids with beards" - Scorsese, DePalma, Coppola etc. Personally I think Scorsese's contributions as a movie historian/teacher/interest-reviver are nearly as important as his own body of work.

  11. Jabberwock, I agree with you re: Widmark.Its just that I saw KOD and Public Enemy at around the same time,so I remember Cagney and Widmark together.In fact in his role in another noir Panic on the Streets, in which Palance and Widmark costarred, he couldn't be further away from the Tommy Udo persona.
    I don't remember seeing any artificially colored movie on TCM.Anyway there are three channels of classic movies to choose from in Canada: TCM, Silver Screen Classics and AMC.These and the imdb, every day one can get at least one really good movie! If only there was a channel subscribing exclusively to non-English movies,my course would be made.
    I have this theory on the greatness of the noir and western movies.These genres were so polished by repetition that every new movie besides being an entity in itself was a new layer in the interpretation of the genre, and that enhanced its flavor.A genre movie automatically inherits the rich metaphors and then it only has to give its own take on it.You don't have to spend time and effort establishing the basic premises of the story.

  12. "Richard Widmark was one of his favorite actors in the whole world, he told her, because of the way in which Widmark was able to convey, what was the word, resilience. You could knock Richard Widmark down, he said, you could even knock Richard Widmark down repeatedly, but you had better bear in mind while knocking Richard Widmark down that Richard Widmark was pretty damn sure going to bounce back up and batter your conk--"

    "Redford is the one I like", she says.

    - Donald Barthelme 'Visitors'.

  13. Jai:
    If TCM did that, I'd die too. Hopefully, sense prevails.

    I'm thinking of having a Widmarkometer - that's how you judge if the self-confessed Hollywood classics fan really is one.

  14. You really should stop posting blogs about movies from now on...

    They are really distract me from my work (I just spent 3 hours on my office computer reading your blogs on various movies and the links from those) and make me ask uncomfortable questions of myself.

    Seriously, stop!