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Pickup on South Street DVD Review

Pickup on South Street

December 4, 2002

Director: Samuel Fuller,
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Jerry O'Sullivan, Harry Carter, George E. Stone, George Eldredge, Stuart Randall, Frank Kumagai, Victor Perry, Emmett Lynn, Parley Baer, ,

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DVD Review

In the booklet that accompanies this DVD, Martin Scorsese writes, “if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.” It’s a bold statement—one that sums up the attitude of Fuller’s movies. He was a filmmaker who could never be accused of being wishy-washy on any topic. His films take forceful stances on a specific issue, be it Communism or war or personal honour. They are stripped-down, straightforward masterpieces that pull no punches. Pickup On South Street (1953) was Fuller’s unflinching take on the Cold War. Even though he made the majority of his films within the studio system, very few have been released on DVD (or on video for that matter). The Criterion Collection previously released Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) with excellent transfers but only theatrical trailers as supplemental material. They’ve rectified the situation with this new release that features a solid collection of extras providing a fantastic introduction into the cinema of Sam Fuller.

Skip McCoy (Widmark) is a small-time pickpocket in New York City. He spots a beautiful woman (Peters) on the subway and steals her wallet. Unbeknownst to him, he wallet contains a microfilm of a patent for a top-secret chemical formula. The U.S. Government and the Communists want it. Once Skip realizes what he’s got, he decides to play both sides and give the microfilm to the highest bidder and avoid getting killed or being thrown in prison.

Fuller’s background as a reporter gives an authenticity to the world he depicts in Pickup On South Street. He pays particular attention to the details of Skip’s profession. Fuller shows how Skip artfully steals from people without getting caught and then how he stashes his loot so that nobody will find it. Fuller’s vision of New York is a gritty world of criminals and stoolies brimming with snappy banter and colourful slang of the streets.

A talented cast beautifully realizes the characters. Widmark plays Skip as a hard nut to crack. He talks tough and doesn’t care about anyone but himself. He isn’t afraid to defiantly blow smoke in a cop’s face. No scene perfectly encapsulates his character better then the one where he is grilled by the cops who try to appeal to his patriotism and give up the microfilm. One cop says, “If you refuse to cooperate you’ll be as guilty as the traitors that gave Stalin the A-bomb.” Skip famously responds, “Are you wavin’ the flag at me?” Skip won’t be baited so easily and doesn’t give a damn about his country, he looks out for himself first and foremost. Skips starts off as a smirking smart-ass but he’s no dummy—he can see the angles and knows how to play them.

Thelma Ritter delivered a career-defining performance as Moe, an informer willing to rat on anyone if the price is right. As she puts it at one point, “Every extra buck has a meaning all its own.” Her character has had a tough life and it is written all over Ritter’s face. Moe is the epitome of world-weariness and yet she has her own personal code: she may rat on people but draws the line at giving information to Communists. It’s solid, honest performance that earned Ritter an Academy Award nomination.

Special Features:

“Sam Fuller on Pickup On South Street” is an interview with the filmmaker by film critic Richard Schickel (taken from an longer piece he did for Turner Classic Movies). Fuller talks at length about the characters in his movie and their motivations. It’s great just to hear Fuller tell anecdotes in his trademark hardboiled delivery—a passionate, gravelly voice.

“Cinema Cinemas: Fuller” is an interview with the man that originally aired on French television in 1982. He talks about how a filmmaker should be re sponsible for the film that they make. “Always be in a position to control what you want because you never get another chance.” The closest we get to an audio commentary on this DVD is footage of Fuller watching the opening reel of Pickup On South Street and gleefully talking over the footage.

“Headlines and Hollywood” is an essay written by Jeb Brody, film curator at the American Museum of the Moving Image and editor at Scenario magazine. It is a well-written biography of Fuller’s life and career that provides excellent insight into his background as a tabloid journalist that informed his movies.

“Recollections from Richard Widmark” is an interview with the film’s star, taken from Lee Server’s book, Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground. Widmark is a no-nonsense kind of guy much like Fuller and it is easy to see why they got along so well.

Also included are trailers for nine of Fuller’s films. These are vintage ads done in a style that you don’t see anymore. They all look fantastic and make you instantly want to see each and every one of them.

Finally, there is a collection of stills from the movie, a poster Fuller filmography and illustrations by Russell Christian that accompanied the screenplay of the movie when it was published in Scenario magazine in 1998.

The Criterion Collection has come through again with a stunning transfer that beautifully restores this film noir classic. For people who haven’t had the opportunity to see any of Fuller’s work, this is a great introduction into his hardboiled, un-sentimentalized world

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 97%

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