Samuel Fuller is hardly one of America's great directors. I'm not sure he qualifies as one of Hollywood's great craftsmen. But he certainly ranks up there with the best of Hollywood's true professionals who were willing to march to their own music. During the time he worked for Hollywood studios, he knew how to take an assignment, shape the middling material handed to him and then turn it quickly and efficiently into something usually better than its parts...on time and on budget. Pickup on South Street is a case in point. On the surface it's one more of Hollywood's early Fifties' anti-Commie movies, complete with appeals to patriotism, a hard-boiled hero and a slimy (and copiously perspiring) bad guy. Fuller turns this bag of Hollywood clichés into a taut, exciting drama with any number of off-kilter twists. The hero, Skip McCoy, is a three-time loser, a petty crook with soft fingers who doesn't change his stripes until the very end. The girl in the caper, Candy, has a level of virtue that would be easy to step over if you're so inclined. One of the most appealing characters, Moe Williams, is a stoolie. And in an unusual approach to Hollywood's battle against Commies, the appeals to patriotism fall on deaf ears; the hero isn't motivated by anything so ennobling. He just wants payback for a personal reason, and winds up becoming...at least for now...a good guy.
Plus, all the actors were mostly assigned to Fuller by the studio. He had to make do. Richard Widmark by now had established his presence as an actor and star, but Jean Peters is a surprise. She gives a fine portrait of a woman sexy and dumb, and no better than her boy friends...or her clients...want her to be. And Richard Kiley, who later would become a two-time Tony award winning star on Broadway, is convincingly slippery and cowardly. It's hard to remember that he was the actor who inflicted on us, I mean introduced to us, "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha,
More than anything else, this tale of a pickpocket who picks a purse in a subway car and finds himself with microfilmed secrets instead of cash, pursued by the Feds and the Commies, moves straight ahead with great economy. The whole enterprise, with a classic noir look, only takes 80 minutes to tell. The dialogue, with Fuller as screenwriter, has that party corny, partly pungent hard-boiled pulp fiction style. "That muffin you grifted...she's okay," one character says to Skip about Candy. Fuller moves us just fast enough from scene to scene to keep us hanging on what will come next. Then Fuller throws in the character of Moe Williams. All of a sudden the story ratchets up to a whole new level of interest, part comedy relief and part sad inevitability.
The thing I like best about the movie is how the opening exemplifies Fuller's talents and strengths. In 2 minutes and 15 seconds, starting right after the credits, Fuller is able to instantly power up the movie, to establish for us what the story is about, and to show us what kind of characters -- Skip and Candy -- we're going to be involved with. And he does this with so much enticing curiosity in that hot, packed subway car that we can just about feel Fuller setting the hook to catch us.
Says Glenn Erickson, in my opinion one of the best of movie critics, "In what should be an inconsequential story, Sam Fuller defines his peculiar view of Americanism from the bottom up: stiff-necked, aggressive self-interest that when fully expressed recognizes what's wrong and what's right and isn't afraid to fight for it. As always in his work, the individuals who fight the hardest for their country are the ones least likely to benefit from the effort." He's right, and it makes for a movie still vivid after 55 years.
The Criterion edition looks first-rate. There are several special features. The case also contains a 20-page booklet with a lengthy excerpt about making the movie from a book by Fuller. The enthusiastic comments by Martin Scorsese about Fuller, however, should be taken with a grain of salt. "I think that if you don't like the films of Samuel Fuller," says Scorsese, "then you just don't like cinema." Oh, come on.