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A BIG RED THREAT IN SAM FULLER'S 'PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET'

YEAR RELEASED: 1953
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is arguably Samuel Fuller's best movie... surpassing even his most famous, THE BIG RED ONE... It's a Film Noir that despises "Reds," and uses that word abundantly, which is a real treat given how much the moniker's been protected since the 1960's because of the paranoia-driven "witch hunts" the decade earlier... So that's that: If Sam says the Communists are a threat, well then, sorry, Intellectuals...

And yet, Fuller tows the line of patriotism by having his antagonist a lifestyle lowlife pickpocket in New York City — who is a war vet, like Sam himself, and when the cops start "waving the flag," goading him into returning a microfilm that was inside ingenue Jean Peters' pocketbook, he demands the law doesn't get Patriotic "to me." This also establishes Richard Widmark's McCoy, holed in a dilapidated sea shanty that's like a character in itself, as being one of the most ambiguous Noir characters in a genre full of them...

Thelma Ritter, Pickup on South Street
But it's not the leading man or lady, thrown together by chance as she wants back what he stole that belonged to an abusive boyfriend who's selling the film (a plot-driven device known as McGuffin) to Communists — it's Thelma Ritter who not only steals scenes, she carries the mantle as also being, technically speaking, the most important character herein...

A streetwise bag-lady-style con-artist "fink" who provides names for a price. This endearingly rough, tie-selling street hustler (like someone out of NIGHT AND THE CITY also starring Widmark) is the one person connecting McCoy with Jean's Candy, who also plays it smooth and natural — despite falling way too hard, far too soon with Widmark, and is the only device seeming rushed, contrived: even someone resembling a Robert Mitchum or Cary Grant would have to work harder to melt a starlet this quickly... It takes minutes here... Or less...

SOUTHScore: ****
But time is of the essence, and very little of it's spent on romance: all love stuff occurs simultaneously with the plot, unveiling a few extra layers as both thugs and cops are on the sideline, who take up much of the screen-time either hounding Peters — or Thelma Ritter, who gives a fantastic monologue to lean, classy villain Richard Kiley as Joey, Candy's boyfriend, sort of, and even he's in this microfilm tradeoff for money.

Ritter plays it neatly, right down the middle. As for the antagonists, the only real "commies" spring out from the woodwork at the last minute since the film's hero, sticking firm to his con and still wanting a load of cash while not caring what side he's on, has to take part in an intrepid action sequence just like he captured the lady's cool heart, and nearly as fast: yet PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is more about dialogue, and Fuller's camera, moving back and forth from each character —  almost as if it were mimicking a boat (the shanty) tossing at sea but without being shaky (that annoying style would happen years later), and putting the people in front of the crime, action, and even (thank God) the politics.
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