Sunday 29 July 2012

1,001 Films: "Pickup on South Street" (1953)

From its brilliantly self-reflexive opening sequence - a kerfuffle amongst strangers on a packed subway train ("What just happened?" "I'm not sure yet") - to the staggeringly brutal fist-fights of its final reel, Pickup on South Street forms an early example of Sam Fuller's genius with thick-eared, hard-boiled scenarios. Richard Widmark's pickpocket Skip McCoy swipes a purse containing a secret formula, and soon finds himself pursued by parties from both sides of the sting operation he's stumbled into: the crooks trying to flog the formula to the highest bidder, and the cops trying to prevent such a secret from falling into enemy hands. Widmark resolves to do nothing, except to hang onto his suddenly priceless booty and taunt anyone who has the misfortune to step into his atmospheric dockside haunt. Minor characters include an eccentric bag lady (specialty: hooky ties) whom the police bring in as an informant, and a fat heavy using chopsticks to stuff dollar bills in his pockets. Everybody sweats a lot, and no-one's especially likable: in the space where audience sympathies would usually go, we get a) Widmark as an anti-hero who's slightly preferable to everyone else because he realises the microfiche in his possession has worth beyond the financial, b) an understanding of the fears that powered the Atomic Age ("You'll be as guilty as those traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb"), and c) an urgent sense that the heat is very definitely on.

Pickup on South Street is available on DVD through Optimum Home Releasing.

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