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With: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter
Written by: Samuel Fuller, from a story by Dwight Taylor
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 80
Date: 05/29/1953

Pickup on South Street (1953)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Cannon Fire

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though he was mostly known for war movies and Westerns, Samuel Fuller's 1953 crime film Pickup on South Street is, along with Shock Corridor (1963), arguably his finest work. Using his newspaper reporter skills to gather all the information he could from the street, Fuller made his pickpocket story as realistic and as gritty as possible, and it's still just as shockingly potent today.

Richard Widmark stars as Skip, a pickpocket (or "cannon") and a three-time loser. In the film's astonishing first few minutes he grifts a package out of a woman's purse. It turns out that the woman, Candy (Jean Peters) was smuggling microfilm for her boyfriend, unaware that he's really a Communist. Skip winds up playing both ends against the middle.

Though Fuller wrote some of the best dialogue in the business, he knew to shut up for that opening scene. He plays it out almost like a sexual act. Peters "responds" to Skip's gropings with her eyes and mouth, and it helps that the sultry subway car makes everyone a little sweaty.

The great character actress Thelma Ritter plays Moe, a tie saleswoman and stool pigeon who lets everyone know where Skip lives. One of the film's great scenes has her coming home after a day's work, exhausted, only to find the Commie boyfriend in her apartment waiting for her. "Mister," she says, "I'm so tired, you'd be doing me a favor if you blew my head off." She radiates weariness, and her voice creaks with it. A sweet, soulful song plays during the scene and ends just as the shot rings out. Ritter received one of her six Oscar nominations for Pickup on South Street.

Though the film uses the Red scare as a big part of its plot ("I don't know nothing about Commies," Moe says, "I just know I don't like them.") Fuller is more interested in establishing time, place and details. When Candy goes on a search of the underworld to find the cannon who snatched her microfilm, she meets a series of shady characters, including a man who eats chow fun and picks up his bribe money with chopsticks. Likewise, Skip lives in a waterfront shack and keeps his beer cold by storing it in a box lowered by a rope into the river.

Most of the other films in 1953 were nowhere near as daring or a physically potent as Pickup on South Street, and the same goes for 2004.

The Criterion Collection has released the film in a beautiful new black-and-white transfer with restored sound and optional English subtitles. The disc comes with a Fuller trailer gallery (Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo, Forty Guns, China Gate, Hell and High Water, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss), a video interview with Fuller, a French television show in which Fuller comments on the first few minutes of the film, a poster gallery and photo gallery and a text interview with Widmark. The jacket comes with three essays, by Martin Scorsese, by Luc Sante and Fuller himself.

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