1953. Starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters. Directed by Samuel Fuller.
Pickup on South Street begins with a claustrophobic encounter on a streetcar, as three-time loser and talented pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) sees a promising target in Candy (Jean Peters), and stands directly in front of her, eye to eye, breathing each other’s breath, and removes the wallet from within her purse. He doesn’t know that, tucked within that purse, is hidden microfilm, being tracked by a couple of federal agents who are only feet away. Such close quarters don’t allow for many secrets, but McCoy makes the most of the elbow room he has to try to turn the score into more.
The world of petty criminals in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is very small, and very quickly, detectives have McCoy’s name and address, thanks to Moe (Thelma Ritter), maybe the most-pathetic snitch ever. Moe trades information and sells cheap ties to add to her savings, with the goal of buying a grave in a private cemetery and avoiding an anonymous home in Potter’s Field. The fact that she gives up her colleague Skip to the law doesn’t bother him — “Moe’s got to eat,” as he puts it.
The source of the microfilm isn’t clear, but it’s intended destination is — Candy’s erstwhile boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley), is making the transfer on behalf of some shadowy “communists,” and its detour into McCoy’s hands is a big problem. Joey sends Candy to get it back, and a funny thing happens — which actually happens a lot in film noir — when the dame falls for the thief. Candy pays a hefty price for her attraction to McCoy, as she gets knocked around more than almost any femme fatale I’ve seen. But she loves the mug, and might be his best chance for survival.
Richard Widmark is one of film’s great conflicted characters with his smug grin and beady eyes, and he’s as believable as a small-time hustler without an allegiance. When being interrogated about the missing microfilm and asked to consider that the police are trying to keep it out of the hands of commies, he snidely responds, “Are you waving the flag at me?” Sam Fuller explains in the Criterion Collection extras that J. Edgar Hoover wanted that line removed, but didn’t get it.
There are so many great scenes in this movie that I’m always surprised that it’s only 80 minutes long. Thelma Ritter has a great role here, and makes the most of it, playing what she calls, “a clock winding down,” but with enough strength to resist when dealing with the real bad guys. And I’ve always loved Skip McCoy’s shack on the river, with its creaky walkway and convenient icebox — a crate at the end of a rope, dangling out the window and deep into the river below. It seems like the perfect hideout for a hood who isn’t sure that the roof over his head tomorrow night won’t be up the river.