Retro Scene: ‘Pickup on South Street’

Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter in 'Pickup on South Street'
Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter in ‘Pickup on South Street’

The title alone implies a great distance between the movie and the Lone Star State, much less its age. Yet ‘Pickup on South Street’ speaks as much to modern-day viewers in Dallas as it might have to audiences in New York City in 1953.

Writer/director Samuel Fuller’s follow-up to ‘Press Row,’ his sizzling newspaper yarn, was handed to him by Darryl Zanuck, his boss at 20th Century Fox. As Fuller relates in his autobiography, “The Third Face,” Zanuck gave him a script by Dwight Taylor titled ‘Blaze of Glory,’ which Fuller liked: “A woman lawyer falls in love with a criminal she’s defending in a murder trial.” Fuller wanted to “go down a few rungs lower on the ladder of criminality,” and suggested the lead should be a small-time thief. “Zanuck had his doubts,” says Fuller, “but he let me go to work on an original script, fleshing out the main characters and redoing the story my own way.”

In Fuller’s film, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is an experienced pickpocket who we meet on a Manhattan subway as he plies his trade with stealth and skill. One of his victims is a woman who, unbeknown to Skip, is being tailed by FBI agents.

The scene plays out without dialogue, the only sounds emanating from the squeaks and sways of the subway car, cutting between extreme close-ups of Skip, the girl, Skip’s fingers, the FBI, and Skip’s face. (Nick DeMaggio served as film editor, the final feature credit of a career that included cutting Fuller’s ‘Fixed Bayonets!’ and Jules Dassin’s ‘Thieves’ Highway.’)

The story proceeds to bounce between three very different couplings. First we have NYPD Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) and the FBI agent. Tiger is the excitable type, and served a six-month suspension for beating up Skip, so he very much wants to nail the three-time loser so he can send him away for life. The FBI agent, who is nominally in charge of the case, is content to have Tiger do whatever it takes, as long it helps him catch the bad guys; the FBI thinks the girl was on her way to deliver microfiche with state secrets to the Communists.

The girl is Candy (Jean Peters), and she is coupled initially with Joey (Richard Kiley), a sweaty, devious kind of lover; Joey sent Candy to make the delivery to keep himself safe. He looks soft on the outside, but his heart is made of money, and that’s his constant motivation.

Finally we have Skip and Moe (Thelma Ritter), a hard-luck lady who struggles to get by, peddling a motley collection of neckties and information she’s heard on the streets. Moe has known Skip since he was a kid, and she looks out for him like a member of her family, but she’s not above selling him out for the right price. Skip knows that, and, by the law of the street, he’s OK with it: “She’s gotta eat, too.”

Like passengers on a swaying subway car, the three couples keep bouncing into one another. Their actions are deliberate, of course, and the stakes are high, but a schedule must be met, so the story rushes along to the end of the line, even as the passengers try to influence where it will end up.

Fuller says he “wanted to take a poke at the idiocy of the cold war climate of the fifties” by alluding to the topical case of Klaus Fuchs, a spy who sold secrets on microfilm to the Soviet Union, and the “general paranoia” in the U.S. about communists. As Fuller points out, Richard Nixon had just been chosen as the vice presidential running mate for Dwight Eisenhower, based in large measure on his reputation as a ‘Commie hunter.’

Originally, Fuller wanted to call the film ‘Pick-pocket,’ but the executives at Fox thought the title was “too ‘European,’ whatever the hell that meant.” Fuller based Captain Tiger on a real NYPD detective who knew every “cannon” in the city; he’d been suspended for six months for “manhandling a suspect,” so that went in the movie too.

While Fuller dearly wanted to shoot on real city streets, he had to rely on the back lot at Fox for his “location” shooting, but gives abundant credit to designer Lyle Wheeler, who “could work wonders on a Hollywood soundstage.”

Widmark, a contract player at Fox, was Fuller’s first and only choice for Skip, but Candy was a more challenging role to cast. According to Fuller, Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner, and, especially, Betty Grable wanted the part; the little known Marilyn Monroe even auditioned. None of them was quite right. Fuller also resisted the notion of casting Jean Peters, based on her past work, but changed his mind after she read a scene and they spent time chatting.

(Peters was chauffeured to rehearsals for a week by a mysterious driver, who turned out to be her secret boyfriend: Howard Hughes. They later married.)

After the film was released, it was screened for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who “really hated it” and set up a meeting with Fuller and Zanuck to talk about it. Hoover felt certain scenes were especially offensive and wanted them to be removed, or re-filmed to address his concerns. Zanuck told him: “Mr. Hoover, you don’t know movies.”

Chris Vognar's Screening Room‘Pickup on South Street’ screened at the Angelika Dallas recently as the third film in the “Chris Vognar’s Screening Room presented by Stella Artois” series that focuses on film noir, in association with the Dallas Film Society. Vognar, who is film critic for the Dallas Morning News, introduced the film and then discussed it afterwards with audience members.

The 35mm print was in decent shape, and seeing it on a big screen with an appreciative audience was a real treat. The next film in the series is Robert Aldrich’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ a powder-keg of dynamite that explodes in my brain every time I see it.

The screening is free, but reservations are required. The reservation period opens Jan. 30 and the screening will be on Feb. 9.

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