Pickup on South Streetrecommended viewing

Exceptional
★★★★★
Released: 
1953
Director: 
Samuel Fuller
Starring: 
Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye
The Setup: 
Thief steals microfilm, unaware of the danger it puts him in.
Discussion: 

At a certain point I just threw every available noir film on my queue, and eventually this one just came up. It was a pleasant surprise to see that it's issued by the Criteron Collection, my first clue that it was going to be good. And it was! In fact, it's really an exemplary, exceptional noir and by far the best WRITTEN noir I know of--and I've watched my share.

We open on a crowded New York subway car, where Jean Peters as saucy lady Candy is just holding on, minding her own business. She is being monitored by several horny males, as well as two detectives and one thief, Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy, who stands next to her and deftly lifts her wallet from her handbag. In the station, she discovered the theft, and calls someone named Joey, asking if she should still "go up to see him." He tells her to abandon her mission and come back right away.

She returns to Joey, who is distraught, because he sent Candy to deliver a microfilm that has patented info for a chemical formula on it. Candy didn't know what she was carrying. He sends her out again, bringing up her chequered past and telling her to "use her contacts" [i.e. among the scum she's used to hanging with] to find out who took it, and get it back. He tells her that this is all part of the one big last job he promised she'd have to do.

Next we're introduced to the two detectives, who were tracking the microfilm, which is now who knows where. They bring in Thelma Ritter as Mo, professional informer. She rakes them for money, having a routine patter about how "the cost of living is going up." She then describes the thief's technique exactly, and gives the cops eight names, from which they quickly find the right one. This scene is the first sense one gets, as it unfolds at a measured pace, that there are some really colorful and complex characters here.

We then join Skip, who lives in a shack on the waterfront under the Brooklyn Bridge. He has the microfilm in a pretty good hiding place, and takes it out to thoughtfully show us, the viewers, that he has it and where it is. He steps out, and when he returns, finds someone fumbling through his things. He punches this person--and finds it to be Candy. He then pours beer on her face to wake her up. You might start saying "Wha?" as he affectionately / threateningly rubs her face and holds her close, and we start to see that, semi-abusive behavior or not, she's in love with him. So she's the girlfriend of Joey and but also in love with the very criminal who stole his film? You got it. Wait a minute, this film's characters have some pretty complex webs!

Candy returns to Joey, who gives her $500 to buy the film. She returns to Skip, who handily relieves her of the money, then informs her that it's not nearly enough--he knows what he's got on his hands. An amusingly cruel moment occurs when he asks her if she wants a smoke, takes out a cigarette and lights it--then takes the new one himself, sticking his old, half-smoked one in her mouth. She gives him the routine like she "really likes him" but he tells her she's working for the Commies--he has seen the film, containing state secrets--and he won't take less than 25 grand.

SPOILERS > > >
So finally Joey is going to do something for himself for once, and go kill Skip, but Candy gives him the wrong address. Then there's a good scene where Skip and Moe meet at a diner. He's pissed that she ratted on him, but at the same time understands. Such is the criminal code! Then Moe goes home and listens to some music--it's a kind of nice break to go home with her and see how she tries to relax on her own--But she's not alone. Joey is there. He demands to know where the film is. She tries, as she always does, to angle for a little more money, telling him she knows it involves the commies. He tells he she just "talked herself into an early grave." She realizes that she did--but remains calm, and says "I'm so tired, you'd be doing me a favor." He does her the favor.

This moment may be when you fully realize that this movie is GREAT. That everyone here is a very full, realized character with plenty of shades of gray, and each gets his own intriguing character arc that is shaded on its own, and also interlocks effortlessly into all the other character arcs. In that last scene, in which we see Moe's weariness at her perilous lifestyle, then the tragic irony that she can't help but angle for a bit more money--and gets herself killed in the process... Wow, this writing puts even the "good" movies of the past 20 years to shame.

The movie wraps up with a tightening, interconnected series of events, but it's got another surprise in store. It starts turning that Skip realizes that Candy really loves him, and that there may be a way for them to get out of this by getting the police the film, getting Skip's criminal record cleared, taking Candy out of there are escaping to a new, non-criminal life. So it again defies convention by having the main criminal realize his chance to go clean, and the final plot twist is his attempt to get the girl and leave criminality behind.
< < < SPOILERS END

Also on the disc is an interview with Samuel Fuller, who frankly comes off as a self-inflated gasbag. Better is a brief print interview with Widmark, who stresses that at the time, these movies were just cranked-out product, without all the "trauma" about creating art or deep ruminating on character motivations. He says you had to do whatever script the studio handed you, and that "You'd finish one Friday and start the next Monday." Which is rather incredible, given the ingeniuity of the writing here, and the careful interplay of vivid character arcs.

So to review: 1) excellent film, 2) one of the better noirs in existence, 3) Perhaps the best-WRITTEN noir in existence, 4) Every character, no matter how minor, has an interesting and brilliantly-conceived character arc, 5) Those character arcs interlock beautifully, 6) it rewards rather than insults your intelligence, and 7) You should be sure to see it.

Should you watch it: 

See 7, above.