Spy 100, #8: Pickup on South Street

Much as I enjoyed Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), I think it’s rated too highly on this list. The distinct visual style and rhythmic crime lingo of noir characterizes this cleverly plotted yarn, which is only a spy film on its edges. It has the feel of classic cinema, but also a host of problematic, era-specific issues.

When a pickpocket named Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifts the wallet of an attractive woman named Candy (Jean Peters) on a New York City subway, it’s a simple crime that turns out to have wickedly complicated consequences. Why? Because Candy is a courier, who was delivering a top secret package for her shady boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). On top of that, she was also under surveillance by federal agents, who were following her to determine the package’s recipient. A chain of events ensues, entangling several conflicting motives. The feds recruit a notorious local stool pigeon, Moe (Thelma Ritter), to try to identify the pickpocket. Joey strong-arms Candy into retrieving what she lost. And the cavalier Skip ultimately learns the unexpected value of his asset, and works to leverage it to the fullest advantage.

It’s a wonderfully complex skein of shady criminal behavior, and I watched the first half-hour or so with pure delight. Peters makes for an interesting, fast-talking femme fatale, and Ritter is both a hoot and a heartbreaker as the ever-angling stoolie. From a subtle, quiet start full of terrific visual story-telling, a beautifully shifty plot emerges, full of switchbacks and double-crosses and hidden agendas.

Alas, the nihilistic noir trappings and gross gender politics of the era do eventually assert themselves, ultimately spoiling the soup. Evidently, Widmark’s arrogant, bad-boy snarl is supposed to be charming, but it doesn’t play; in fact, he’s almost entirely irredeemable, which renders a crucial flash-romance between Skip and Candy decidedly unconvincing. Too much of the relationship relies on Candy’s poor judgment, and it’s undercut even further by the casual, explosive physical abuse she receives from Skip — and later, more seriously, from Joey. This is standard noir misogyny at work, I suspect, cavalierly handled in a manner that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. For all the clever build-up of its nifty plot, it resolves awkwardly: the climactic fight scene fades out oddly, followed by a weird Hollywood ending that Skip certainly doesn’t deserve, and that I wish Candy hadn’t wanted.

It’s a shame, because there is so much to like here. Fuller’s directorial eye is in fine form, the scenario is full of intrigue and suspense, and oh, the glorious patter of slick dialogue. It’s even, amazingly, a Bechdel pass, with female leads who totally outshine their male counterparts. But in the end, it’s a number of awkward missteps short of brilliant.

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