This week in The Best of Film Noir we’re looking at Pickup on South Street, the 1953 classic starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters and Thelma Ritter, and directed by Samuel Fuller. What starts as a simple pickpocket by a sleazy thief becomes a spy drama complete with twists, turns and romance. All with a wonderful film noir flair.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
Richard Widmark plays Skip McCoy, a petty thief with so many arrests, he’s one away from being locked up forever. Just out of jail, McCoy lifts the contents of a woman’s purse (Jean Peters as Candy). Unbeknownst to him, the purse contains microfilmed U.S. government secrets that were headed to Moscow. The F.B.I. and Candy’s employers want the microfilm back, and McCoy tries to play both sides. McCoy is a great noir hero – a dark, gritty character who eventually falls for love. It’s also cool to see McCoy refusing to be any kind of hero. Many argue that this performance is Widmark’s finest role.
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
Jean Peters plays Candy, an unwitting courier for the Russians. She is the fall gal, the manipulated woman throughout. Candy is a suitable name for Peters’ character, as she is definitely eye candy :). What I find interesting is that, as a femme fatale, Candy doesn’t so much seduce McCoy as put up with McCoy’s verbal and physical abuse in exchange for his love (although love might not be quite the word for what transpires between the two). Peters also delivers a fine performance.
The Best of Film Noir – The Writing
There are a couple of things that really make this film deliver (more below). The first is the writing. Pickup on South Street is superbly written. Full of ear-popping dialogue, great characters, and complex themes (for more on themes, read this post), Pickup on South Street has it all. Combine this with some great direction, visually stunning cinematography, and you have a classic. And when a movie stands the test of time, and still feels relevant sixty years later, that is quality writing. It’s a shame that more movies (and books) today aren’t written this well.
The Best of Film Noir – The Acting
Thelma Ritter is the other reason Pickup on South Street delivers. Yes, Widmark and Peters are awesome, but Ritter is nothing short of brilliant in the role of Moe Williams, a street peddler and informant. I personally love Thelma Ritter (who can forget her in such roles as Stella in Rear Window, Alma in Pillow Talk or Birdie in All About Eve), but seeing her play against type, and doing it so well is a real treat. She is witty, charming, and vulnerable as she is used by the others to get what they want. If for no other reason, watch Pickup on South Street for Ritter’s performance, which garnered her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
The Best of Film Noir – Trivia and Goofs
Betty Grable, not wanting to take on a downcast role, decline to play Candy. Twentieth Century-Fox then put Miss Grable on suspension.
Pickup on South Street was remade as The Cape Town Affair with James Brolin, Jacqueline Bisset and Claire Trevor.
When Candy lights a cigarette in an early scene, the matchbook cover reads Park Row, which was the title of Fuller’s previous film.
At one point, Candy refers to an address in New York City on Houston Street (pronouncing it like John Huston or the Texas city). In reality, the street is pronounced “House-ton” – something known to every New Yorker.
When Skip and Joey fight in the subway station, they are fighting in a cleared area near the ticket office and then the next two shots show them confined by exit railings near the newspaper stand and then the next shot cuts back to the open area.
After Joey shoots Candy and she’s lying unconscious with her foot against the door, you can see that she moves the foot forward before he opens it.
Thanks to IMDb for those.
Pickup on South Street does seem to divide viewers. Some love it, others think it misses the mark. Obviously I’m on the side that says it hits the mark. But see for yourself – grab your popcorn and soda, sit down and see what you think of Pickup on South Street.
If you love film noir, you should read This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, a Reader’s Favorite Finalist for mystery.
What a reader says:
Reed Ferguson is the newest cool detective on the bookshelves. Reed is the best kind of detective; he’s one of us. He hasn’t got massive muscles and wields a gun with ease. He takes a licking, but keeps on ticking. He uses good old fashion brains to solve cases. This is a great series that I am sure will garner many fans and hopefully we’ll be reading for years to come.