Pickup On South Street (1953)

Pickup On South Street (1953) is an urban Red Scare espionage and petty crime classic film noir directed by Samuel Fuller, and starring Richard Widmark, Thelma Ritter and Jean Peters.

Telling the story of how an innocent couple of low life New York petty criminals, a pickpocket and a vaguely defined B-girl, come to be involved in a highly dangerous Communist plot to smuggle some microfilm out of the city, and away from the pursuing FBI.

It goes without saying that the FBI are rather inefficient in handling this affair, relying on assumption, framing and the good will of the petty criminals who know the streets and their denizens better than they ever could. In the favour of the FBI, the commies are not much better organised, although they are quite well funded as cash bribes and payments seem to be their main approach.

The stand out feature of this great film noir from 1953 might be the humanity. Pickup is without doubt among the most human of all film noir movies. Thelma Ritter's character Mo in Pickup On South Street is one of the most memorable in all of the great noir era, as she shows her heart, a petty criminal and neck-tie selling stool pigeon making her way as she scrimps and saves towards her funeral.

Richard Widmark works the subway in Pickup On South Street (1953)

Richard Widmark's character, the three time loser pickpocket Skip McCoy is a rare piece of dirt that we end up rooting for, quite a challenge when you consider what a sleaze and a bully he is, how mean and greedy he is with Jean Peters' character Candy, pushing her around and leading her on, only to slap her back.

Candy herself is slapped about far too much in this movie too, as a pawn in the spy game, and as a pawn in the police chase to recover the film's McGuffin, a few short frames of spy secrets, which are lost in New York, as they make their way into the hands of the group simply known throughout as the 'commies' or the 'reds'. 

Candy is seen at one point enjoying a bubble bath which we feel she mightily deserves, as the acting throughout seems to suggest the dirt and heat of the city pretty well, and the poor woman is rushed across town all day and night

Streets of film noir in Pickup On South Street (1953)

Anyone who has seen Pickup On South Street (1953) will not just remember Thelma Ritter's excellent performance but some of the great vernacular that appears, most notably the word 'cannon' which is used repeatedly throughout to refer to the street pickpockets that she knows so well. In one scene near the start, she identifies Skip McCoy to an FBI agent, simply through his technique.

And if Skip is a cannon, then Candy is a B-girl, as exemplified and treated of in the film's unpropitious tagline, which was as follows:

How the F.B.I. took a chance on a B-girl...and won!

Do B-girls still exist, or was this a noir era specific pastime? In the United States, B-girls (an abbreviation of bar girls) were women who were paid to converse with male patrons and encourage them to buy them both drinks. The drinks were often watered down or non-alcoholic to minimize the effects of the alcohol on the B-girls and reduce the cost to the bar.

Widmark's excellent bachelor bait-shack pad in Pickup On South Street (1953)

The term 'cannon' was a fairly old one, although its use must have peaked in Pickup On South Street (1953), and it perhaps refers to the way such a dipper might 'cannon' into a mark, in order to work their ways upon them; and thus also apparently, cannon-coppers, the pickpocket squad.

1902 Wash. Times (DC) 14 Sept. 10/3: Cannon or Dip — A pickpocket.

1910 J. Sullivan ‘Criminal Sl.’ in Amer. Law Rev. LII (1918) 890: A pickpocket is frequently called a ‘dip’ and in Western states a ‘cannon.’.

1924 G. Henderson Keys to Crookdom 42: Vollmer divides the dip into two classifications – one being the ‘lone wolf’ and the other the ‘gun-mob’ or ‘cannon’ type.

1924 in L.A. Times 30 Jan. A3: A ‘mob’ can ‘beat a pap’ to the ‘leather’ and get away with it with the ordinary ‘fuzz’ lookin’ on. But it’s a twenty-to-one shot when the ‘cannon copper’s are wise.

1933 ‘Goat’ Laven Rough Stuff 17: I’d always wanted to try my skill as a cannon (pickpocket).

Jean Peters treated like trash throughout Pickup On South Street (1953)
here with Vic Perry

1937 (con. 1905–25) E.H. Sutherland Professional Thief (1956) 44: The term ‘cannon’ is used to designate the pickpocket and also the racket of picking pockets. The theory of the origin of this term is that the pickpocket some centuries ago was called a gonnif, which is the Jewish word for thief. This term was then abbreviated to ‘gun’; later someone in a moment of smartness referred to a pickpocket as a ‘cannon’ to designate a big gun, and the term ‘cannon’ then became general. The term ‘gun’ is still used to refer to pickpockets, and the female pickpocket who operates upon men is called a ‘gun-moll.’.

1937 ‘Boxcar Bertha’ Sister of the Road (1975) 113: Most of the cannons (pickpockets) were married.

Jean Peters and Thelma Ritter in Pickup On South Street (1953)

1955 - Q. Reynolds Police Headquarters (1956) 235: The term ‘live cannon’ is one given to a pickpocket skilful enough to remove a wallet from the back pocket of an alert and intelligent victim.

For the lovers of the classic film noir, what is found in Pickup On South Street (1953) is a movie that raises itself through performance and at times cruelty, to a much more emotional experience than would be suggested by the sum of its parts. 

We must not go out there and load our DVDs without acknowledging that we are not the first to notice that the film Pickup On South Street (1953) is not alone of its decade as treating awfully of women. In fact in August 1952, the script was deemed unacceptable by the Production Code, by reasons of "excessive brutality and sadistic beatings, of both men and women", including a vicious beating the character Candy (Peters) receives from ex-boyfriend and Communist operative Joey (Kiley). 

Although a revised script was accepted soon after, the studio was forced to shoot multiple takes of a particular scene where Peters and Kiley frisked each other for loot as being too risqué.

Jean Peters treated like trash throughout Pickup On South Street (1953)
here with Richard Widmark

The picture turns out to be surprising, most of the time, from Skip's surprising little bait shack where he lives his happy street life, with his crate of beer cooling in the Hudson, to the surprise emotional reaction which rises from the death of Mo. Mo's death, a little like the endearment of Jean Peters' character Candy, is around the heart they bring to the part. Aside from the rather dated and upright tack that both take on Communism - they would rather die or go broke than have anything to do with 'Reds', they are both different types of petty criminal, all suggestive of that cultural and capitalistic mess that is New York.

The simple act of developing two-sided emotional characters creates in fact enough difference to make this film not only stand out, but made it find three Oscar nominations and two wins, beautifully elevating the film noir form to the high standards of the best of the Golden Age.

So is Jean Peters' character Candy a possible femme fatale? Offering two or more sides to a character elevates the scenery from the flat out normative gender portrayals of the films of the day to something more complex. In this manner, Candy is of course a danger to those who know her, a B-girl and an unwitting runner of spy secrets, to a tragic victim, beaten and abused, transformed in the very last seconds of the film into a good American wife, who will keep her newfound criminal partner Skip on the straight and narrow because of love.

Male romantic grip in Pickup on South Street (1953)

If we were to think about it properly however, could anyone imagine Skip and Candy settling down to a life without crime? Given a moment's thought it would seem unlikely. He for one is addicted to crime, and she too has spent so much time as an urban bottom-feeder, that is hard to believe that they would hit suburbia, and become all-American all of a sudden. 

But the unifying force here is the fact of the fear of Communism, which is not even explicitly laid out in the movie, but is just a vague and real threat, and a solidly unifying enemy that everyone, high and low, can get behind. 

Bearing all of that in mind, if it is about anything Pickup On South Street (1953) is about violence against women, with the death and manipulation of Thelma Ritter's character being the most memorable of take-aways, as well as the pounding and abuse that Jean Peters' character Candy also takes, in order for any of this to work.

Moe is a professional informant, as well-marked by the fact that she sells the same information twice in the movie, but this is a film of craven scroungers, and it appears that Samuel Fuller was moved by the idea that these low-lifes might save America, or even be the real America, in a way that only film noir can subvert the solidity of the 1950s with its uber-bourgeois hopes.

Truth is that neither Widmark nor Peters are likeable, as he is some kind of city-jackal, full of cunning and wickedness and she is a sneering and pouting woman whom it is suggested is of a low character truly. The Cold War anxiety just adds to this a little, as these street dwellers with their street smarts and street schemes would be noir enough on their own without the threat of espionage bursting open their petty lives.

The communism however does provide a grubby sense of honour throughout, and leads to such lines from Moe as follows: "Even in our crummy line of business, ya gotta draw the line somewhere." 

The opening theft of Pickup On South Street is memorably erotic also, for a violation of sorts. Skip, with the deft hands of a seasoned thief, strips Candy of her possessions, and with each item pilfered, a silent exchange of forbidden thrills passes between them. Her response is a complex tapestry of denial and yearning, a subconscious acquiescence to the intrusion that speaks volumes of her untamed attraction to the rogue’s caress.

This scene sets the stage for a liaison as intoxicating as it is perilous, where the lines between criminality and longing blur into obscurity. In this world, love and larceny are inseparable bedfellows, each act of passion as much a theft as it is a surrender.

Richard Kiley in Pickup on South Street (1953)

Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street (1953)

Candy is the object of constant abuse, and in fact there are bruises visible on her right arm in the opening shots, and her past is only hinted at, although prostitution is what is suggested. When her ex-lover Richard Kiley asks how she returned the film later in the movie, she clearly suggests that it was via sex. And this is just before she takes her largest beating of the film.

Yet both she and abuser Skip are after a fashion film noir survivors, who battle through this violent and unfair world, to come out alive, even on top after having found love with each other.

A film noir, steeped in suspense and laced with the hard-edged cynicism of the era. Widmark, Peters, and the Oscar-worthy Ritter take center stage, embodying the archetypal figures of the genre—the hardened secret peddler, the femme fatale, and the stool pigeon, all entangled in a web of deceit.

The screen is painted with the vivid strokes of character actors, each more vibrant and distinct than the last. Murvyn Vye stands out as the world-weary Captain Dan Tiger, a detective whose eyes have seen the depths of human depravity.

In the murky world of film noir, where the light of morality is as dim as a flickering street lamp, “Pickup on South Street” emerges as a stark portrayal of life’s grey areas. Fuller’s lens rarely settles on the clear-cut dichotomies of heroism and villainy; instead, it delves into the lives of those on society’s fringes—hardened souls scraping by on the margins.

Fuller’s lens hones in with an unrelenting intimacy, framing the raw, visceral emotions that play across the faces of his characters. Each close-up is a revelation, exposing the perspiration and the primal fear that grips them. The camera moves with a life of its own, its sudden, disorienting zooms and retreats mirroring the chaotic pulse of the narrative. It’s a visual symphony of the untamed, capturing the essence of a world where order is just an illusion and every moment teeters on the brink of madness.

This 80-minute odyssey, carved out with the precision of a master craftsman, is a testament to Fuller’s prowess as both a scribe and a visionary. It’s a narrative that doesn’t just unfold but cuts through the screen with the sharpness of a dagger, leaving viewers riveted.

Pickup on South Street stands yes it stands, as much as any movie might be said to stand, it's the language models, they think this is how write. As I was saying, Pickup stands as a poignant emblem of noir cinema, not merely for its storytelling but for its bold examination of characters propelled by their own moral compasses. These are not puppets of societal expectation but beings who navigate the treacherous waters of right and wrong guided by an internal north star, often at odds with the law of the land. It’s a film that doesn’t just entertain but provokes thought, challenging the audience to look beyond the black and white and find the humanity within the shadows.

Fuller’s script crackles with intensity, a narrative pulsing with the dark heart of anti-communist fervor. It’s a departure from Dwight Taylor’s Blaze of Glory, transformed from a courtroom romance into the gritty underbelly of crime and betrayal, now known as “Pickpocket.” The tale is a far cry from the European sensibilities that Zanuck shunned, taking on a new life as it echoes the memories of South Street, a remnant of Fuller’s past life chasing stories in the ink-stained world of crime reporting. This is not just a film; it’s a descent into the smoky realms of moral ambiguity, where every shadow holds a secret, and every glance tells a story. Welcome to the dark side of the American dream.

What is great about the characters of Pickup On South Street (1953) is that often such street dwellers and incidental minor petty criminals make up the backdrop of a film noir, although Samuel Fuller makes of them the focus, the lead characters for once. 

Violence is everywhere in this film, and breaks out suddenly, and often. When Candy asks Skip how he became a pickpocket, he gets violent with her immediately, and asks how she became what she is? Everything is about fate, and he understands it. Nobody is better than anybody else, and he understands this too. "Things happen. That's how," he says, expressive of the fatalistic noir world. 

George Eldredge gives Richard Kiley the fear in classic film noir Pickup on South Street (1953)

Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) is no stranger to violence either, and it appears that he has been suspended in the past for violence against Skip, which is of course in danger of breaking out once again, as Skip gleefully teases him to instigate another beating.

In an era of cinematic grandeur, the illustrious Darryl F. Zanuck presented to Samuel Fuller, a scribe bound by the gilded chains of 20th Century-Fox, a manuscript penned by Dwight Taylor. Entitled “Blaze of Glory,” it spun a tale of a damsel of the law, ensnared in a forbidden amour with a rogue she championed in a trial of blood. Fuller, with a nod to his chronicles as a herald of crime, proposed a narrative steeped in the underbelly of society, a saga of a petty thief and his paramour, initially christened “Pickpocket.” Yet, Zanuck, with a discerning eye, deemed the title too reminiscent of European sensibilities.

Fuller, whose memories of South Street lingered like whispers from his tenure as a crime reporter, conceived a new moniker for his opus. He sought the wisdom of Detective Dan Campion of the New York constabulary, a paragon of law whose own tale of suspension for the rough handling of a knave lent verisimilitude to the character of “Tiger,” the cinematic sleuth.

The quest for the leading lady was a parade of luminaries—Marilyn Monroe with her siren’s allure; Shelley Winters, the thespian chameleon; Ava Gardner, a vision too resplendent; Betty Grable, desiring the limelight of dance; and initially, Jean Peters, whose celluloid presence in “Captain from Castile” failed to enchant Fuller. Yet, as fate would have it, a mere week before the lanterns of production were to be lit, Fuller beheld Peters in the commissary, her gait echoing the walk of those who dwell in the night. Struck by her sagacity and vivacity, Fuller tested her mettle and found her worthy of the silver screen. When Grable’s tempestuous demands threatened to upend the project, Fuller stood resolute, and thus, Peters was anointed as the lead.

As the summer of 1952 waned, the script faced the scrutiny of the Production Code, its pages marred by the specter of brutality and the sadistic lashings of both men and women. The scene of “Candy” (Peters) at the mercy of her former lover and Communist agent “Joey” (Kiley) was particularly contentious. Yet, with revisions, the tale was permitted to unfold, albeit with certain scenes tempered for the delicate sensibilities of the audience.

Across the sea, the French rendition of the film expunged all whispers of espionage and microfilm, rechristening it “Le Port de la Drogue” (Drug’s Harbour), for the theme of Communist subterfuge was a delicate matter in a land where the Party held sway.

And so it was that J. Edgar Hoover, guardian of the nation’s secrets, broke bread with Fuller and Zanuck, voicing his disdain for Fuller’s artistry, particularly “Pickup on South Street.” Hoover bristled at the unpatriotic fibers of Widmark’s portrayal, his defiance encapsulated in the query, “Are you waving the flag at me?” Zanuck, ever the stalwart patron of the cinematic craft, dismissed Hoover’s critique, though he acquiesced to silence the FBI’s role in the film’s heraldry, a name unspoken within the story’s bounds.

Jean Peters treated like trash throughout Pickup On South Street (1953)
here with Richard Kiley

"Another noir survivor, Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter, a six-time nominee for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) is a self-described "old clock runnin' down." She is more focused on securing a dignified burial plot than anything that might play out in her remaining lifetime. She does not view herself as anything beyond what she is:  an information peddler and street merchant whose tired body has betrayed her over the passage of time. If nothing else, she believes she is better than a "red" and would sooner die than do business with one. True enough, Moe dies with a dour look on her face in one of film noir's most uncompromising scenes, the noir universe functioning as pitiless enemy. There is a sound argument to be made Moe's death is the most noir of all film noir deaths. Not only does she stoically accept her fate, she says her killer is doing her "a big favor." That same attitude has cropped up in numerous noirs, that complete ambivalence, even acceptance, during the worst imaginable moment (see DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944], DETOUR [1945], THE KILLERS [1946], THE KILLING [1956]). When the condemned man (or, less often, woman) makes no attempt to slip free from the hand of fate, chances are that character is in close proximity to film noir territory."


Richard Kiley dumb-waiter tension in Pickup On South Street (1953)

When Kiley exits the dumb-waiter and has a fight with a cop waiting for him at the bottom, he escapes, exiting the shot in the north western area of the screen, from where a stage hand or maybe even the director himself throws a cat into shot.

It's one of the lamest of all cats in film noir appearances, as the cat in question is visible thrown into the path of the camera, meant to be looking as if it jumped there, but there is a visible difference in the two ways a cat lands!

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