Film Review: Pickup On South Street (1953)

Also known as: Pickpocket, Blaze of Glory (working titles)
Release Date: May 27th, 1953 (Boston and Philadelphia)
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller, Dwight Taylor
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter

20th Century Fox, 80 Minutes

Review:

“I know you pinched me three times and got me convicted three times and made me a three time loser. And I know you took an oath to put me away for life. Well you’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eye-wash, but get this: I didn’t grift that film and you can’t prove I did! And if I said I did, you’d slap that fourth rap across my teeth no matter what promises you made!” – Skip McCoy

For those that don’t know, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had an interesting working relationship with 20th Century Fox. Hoover allowed the studio access to investigations and files and thought that allowing some “transparency” through a Hollywood lens would make the public more supportive of the FBI under Hoover.

However, this film is what ended that relationship, as Hoover wanted it changed due to what he felt wasn’t a complete condemnation of communism. The studio stuck by writer/director Samuel Fuller and this film was released, unaltered.

Hoover was upset because this has a plot that involves Richard Widmark’s character being involved with passing off a piece of secret film to those bastard Reds. Widmark’s character, regardless of the communist involvement in the plot, seemed unfazed as to who his employer was. And he never really shows any remorse for the communists’ plot that he was a part of and certainly doesn’t have a moment of reflection where he turns over a new leaf. Apparently, this infuriated Hoover but it does seem more genuine and leaving the story as is, was probably for the better, regardless of the political climate of the time. Plus, it makes for an interesting tale that is larger than the movie itself and has thus, elevated this motion picture’s importance in a time when film-noir movies were a dime a dozen and most have been forgotten.

But regardless of all that, this is still a superb noir, carried by the solid perfromance by Widmark, as well as Jean Peters, his gal, and the always stupendous Thelma Ritter.

For the time, Ritter has a death scene here that is really damn dark and makes your heart sink. While I’m a fan of just about everything in this picture, it’s this scene where you really see the great talent of Ritter, as well as the greatness of Samuel Fuller, who picked the music and shot the scene, using fabulous camera work, lighting and cinematography. Granted, he had help in the cinematography department by Joseph MacDonald, who also worked on Panic In the Streets, Niagara, Hell and High Water, The Young Lions, Pepe and The Sand Pebbles.

The story is also engaging and the threats in this feel genuine and real. Despite Hoover’s concerns, this certainly doesn’t paint the Reds in a positive light.

I also have to give props to Jean Peters for how physical she had to get with this role. I’m not sure if they used a double or not and I don’t think that they did, but when she literally gets the crap kicked out of her in her own apartment, it’s absolutely brutal for 1953 standards. Hell, it’s hard to watch for 2019 standards where movie audiences see some pretty violent stuff on a regular basis.

Pickup On South Street will probably always be a footnote in Hollywood history. However, it deserves its recognition in spite of its controversy. It’s a solid picture, lifted up by its players, its director and its cinematographer.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noirs: Night and the City, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Where the Sidewalk Ends and Naked City.

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