Pickup on South Street is one of Sam Fuller’s few big studio films, and more importantly, one of his finest. Pickpocket pro Richard Widmark inadvertently becomes involved in stolen government secrets when he pickpockets the wrong woman, a tough talking Jean Peters. This is hard core noir mixed in with cold war paranoia. The film is filled with tough smart aleck talking guys and dames, no matter what side of the law they are on. Widmark is very good, but Thelma Ritter as Mo, the snitch, steals every scene she is in. Not a perfect film but damn near close.
Widmark, as Skip McCoy, is an arrogant small time pickpocket. A three time loser who accidently fines himself in possession of a film strip filled with stolen government secrets and sees it as his one chance at a big score. He doesn’t care who he sells the goods too as long as he gets his money. Don’t bother waving the flag or spouting patriotic jingoistic slogans, McCoy is not impressed. At the time, the communist threat was high on everyone’s list. There were commies everywhere, or so we were told. That said, the film is not really political, they just happened to be the bad guys. With the McCarthy witch hunts fresh on everyone’s mind, it was not unusual for films from this time period to contain commies as dastardly villains looking to destroy our way of life. Unlike films such as The Woman on Pier 13, Big Jim McLain or My Son John, Pickup on South Street does not preach. The communists are the villains, but it could have been any other organization or group. When McCoy is asked if he knows what treason is? He responds, “Who cares!” For McCoy, it’s not political, it’s about money, making the big score. What turns McCoy on the commies is something more personal. This after Joey (Richard Kiley), the communist middle man, beats up Candy and kills Mo.
In his career, Richard Widmark generally was at his best when he played brazen, crazed characters on the wrong side of the law. His career got off to a great start in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death where, as the psychotic Tommy Udo, he tossed a wheel chair bound elderly lady down a flight of stairs. Jean Peters in the dame in the middle. As Candy, a former prostitute, unknowingly working for the commies, she is a fully developed, sexy work of female art and also the moral center of the film that eventually leads McCoy on his road to redemption.
Acting honors though are stolen by Thelma Ritter as Mo, a professional snitch, who sells her information to anyone with fifty dollars to spend. She’s saving up for a cemetery plot in order to avoid being buried in Potter’s Field. Ritter was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. One of six in her career.
Like all of Sam Fuller’s films, it socks you in the gut. Fuller was not a subtle filmmaker. His work has been called both primitive and tabloid, apt descriptions. His work is always stylized and visually arresting. You know a Sam Fuller film when you see one.