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Pickup on South Street: The Criterion Collection

There's film, there's noir, there's verité — and then there's Sam Fuller. The legendary director who started out as a cub reporter on the streets of New York City and fought on European battlefields during World War II never reached the ranks of the Hollywood elite, but his cachet has grown with every passing year, particularly as the ever-expanding film culture roots through the cinematic past for well-loved if generally unheralded gems. Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953) may rank behind Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) with his ardent devotees, but it's perhaps his most accessible film, in addition to being a snappy slice of vintage noir. Richard Widmark stars as Skip McCoy, an expert New York pickpocket who's just been released from jail and has three strikes on him — which means the next time he's collared by the cops, he'll be sent down for life. But that doesn't keep McCoy from his chosen profession. Before long, his nimble fingers find their way into the purse of Candy (Jean Peters) on a Manhattan subway. But unbeknownst to her, Candy is being trailed by Feds on the hunt for a Communist espionage ring. Candy's just a courier who knows nothing about her precious payload of microfilm, which she's expected to deliver to ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). When she comes up empty, Joey sends her back on the street, where she finds stoolie Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter). For $50, Moe fingers McCoy. Meanwhile, the Feds realize they've lost their microfilm-trail, and the local cops also bribe Moe, who identifies McCoy as the "cannon" in the subway. It doesn't take long for McCoy to realize he's holding on to a hot property. The cops offer to clean his slate if he coughs it up. But he wants more — and he'll only give the film back to the Reds for $25,000.

There's very little point going into Pickup on South Street looking for profound thematics. A product of the Fox studio, it was shot in a mere four weeks, almost entirely on the lot, and meant to be little more than a profitable low-budget title. Fuller's craftmanship is why the film still retains its appeal, with crisp black-and-white composition, several dynamic closeups, and the wonderful street-patter of the New York underworld, with cannons, moll-buzzers, grifters, and big thumbs. Contemporary audiences may get a kick out of the "red scare" dialogue, with both cops and criminals holding communists in the greatest contempt, but the ploy is little more than a MacGuffin to match the day's headlines, and Fuller's wry antihero McCoy sneers at the cops over the matter, insisting "Don't wave the flag at me!" Co-star Jean Peters comes with the requisite noir sex appeal, looking ravishing in a flowing, pleated skirt and tight sweater (she wouldn't win any acting awards, but she did marry Howard Hughes). But Thelma Ritter is the cast's most memorable standout as the aging, pitiable stool-pigeon Moe, who quietly collects bribe money in order to buy her own cemetery plot. It's a brisk 80 minutes that's easily enjoyed as a chestnut of American matinee cinema. Even then, Fuller still has the capacity to surprise — Candy's brutal beating at the hands of Joey, Joey's escape from a surrounded building via a cramped dumbwaiter, and the sweeping camerawork during the final subway confrontation are just as vivid and powerful today as they were half a century ago.

Pickup on South Street, a Criterion Collection release by arrangement with Fox, offers a clean full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a nearly pristine source-print that captures the finest details, particularly during dramatic closeups. The monaural audio (DD 1.0) is clear and free of ambient noise. Supplements include a vintage interview with Fuller (19 min.), a "Cinéma Cineméas" excerpt on Fuller from 1982 (11 min.), the essay "Headlines and Hollywood" by film producer Jeb Brody, a textual interview with Richard Widmark, trailers for nine Fuller films, a collection of stills and posters, and a booklet with three essays in the keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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