Harsh Texture

Pickup on South Street

An amoral pickpocket accidentally steals microfilm that the Soviet spies would kill to get back

A pickpocket comes into possession of a bit of espionage. Both the Communist spies and the American Law Enforcement track him down. The pickpocket isn’t particularly concerned about either party and frustrates them both while claiming to have only allegiance to money.

There are always a few Richard Widmarks kicking around at any given time. A-List talent that only seems to find their way into passable features. After their career’s end their filmographies hardly tell the tale of how large they once were.

I was drawn to Pickup on South Street because it was one of Widmark’s best reviewed features. The biggest shock to be found here is that this feature is almost completely stolen from its leading actors by Thelma Ritter as Moe, an elderly stool pigeon. Director/writer Sam Fuller is fully complicit in this theft. Moe is placed at the crossroads between law and crime, a professional stool pigeon who survives in the underworld by drawing sympathy from both sides.

It’s Widmark’s film though and Pickup spends much of the running time trying to uncover some morsel of morality in his Skip McCoy. In its search McCoy is revealed to have no love of the law, or the country. He’ll work with the communists, and may even prefer it--they pay more after all. Its only in a weakly defined honor toward the women in his life does McCoy become something of a hero.

Director Sam Fuller renders the New York City of Pickup with a dynamic lens. The camera is in constant motion, zooming and moving in nearly every scene. He situates McCoy physically outside of society. He lives on 66 South St, an unpowered shack in the water, completely separated from greater New York City except for a couple boards that serve as fragile bridge.

Published: March 18, 2018, 2:20 p.m.
Updated: March 18, 2018, 2:20 p.m.