As a film director, Samuel Fuller earned a reputation for grittiness. He had an early career as a copyboy and then a crime reporter in New York City, including writing for the notorious tabloid, the New York Evening Graphic, shuttered under the pressure of various libel suits. He served in World War II and harbored no illusions about the nobility of war.
Perhaps that’s what made him one of the better war film directors. He never shied away from the absurdity of it all, the pointless brutality, the zero-sum game. Films like The Steel Helmet (1951), Fixed Bayonets! (1951), and The Big Red One (1980) offer an unflinching and penetrating look at the violence man perpetrates against man. They are entirely unsentimental about patriotism, and that lack of national fervor got them branded as unpatriotic by such figures as J. Edgar Hoover.
Fuller carried that skepticism regarding nationalism into his non-war-related films, as well. This is exemplified by his film noir Pickup on South Street (1953). The plot hits the customary marks of the genre. The main character, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), is a pickpocket. Shortly after being released from his third stint in prison—an important plot point in that a fourth conviction will get him sent up for life—he filches the contents of the purse of a young woman on a crowded subway car.
This is Candy (Jean Peters). She is acting as a courier for her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). Candy believes Joey is a canny businessman and that she is simply carrying valuable information to a client. Unbeknownst to her, Joey is a communist spy, and she is carrying microfilm containing a top-secret government formula.
Candy is under the watchful eye of Zara (Willis Bouchey), a US government agent intent on recovering the microfilm and busting the communist ring. Skip, through the careful choreography of body and newspaper, manages to remove Candy’s wallet without her noticing a thing. Even Zara, who watches the theft from close proximity, is unsure if anything actually happened—that is until Candy discovers the wallet is missing and the entire bust is spoiled.
From here many of the film noir clichés get checked. Zara goes to the local police station, seeking the assistance of Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye). They then consult an informant, Moe (played with characteristic charm by Thelma Ritter), a woman who sells ties out of a briefcase and knows the working habits of all the local “cannons” (the nickname they give pickpockets).
Moe is saving for her funeral in a nice cemetery, to avoid winding up in “Potter’s Field”. “If I was to be buried in Potter’s Field,” she laments (in a register that is somehow both touching and deadpan), “it would just about kill me.” She is a stoolie but has a conscious; she doesn’t just rat out Skip. She names several cannons it might be. Zara identifies Skip’s picture from there.
Tiger, not surprisingly, has a personal loathing for Skip and is determined to make him a lifer. Candy returns emptyhanded and confused to Joey, who frantically sends her back out into the world to recover the missing wallet. She too winds up consulting Moe and finds Skip. Moe makes a decent wage off Skip that day—not that he minds really. “She’s got to eat, too,” he says nonchalantly.
Thus, all the pieces are in place. You have the anti-hero Skip who has just happened upon his big score. He even lives in a preposterous shack perched precariously on stilts near the South Street pier, the only point of entry being a set of rickety wooden planks. Just the kind of location that feels like something you’d find in a pulp novel.
You have the alluring and streetwise young woman who somehow retains her innocence despite having earned multiple degrees at the school of hard knocks who falls in love with the anti-hero and persists in her devotion until he realizes he loves her, as well. You have the loveable stoolie who earns cash through ratting out friends and yet never garners their resentment. Moreover, she is goaded on by a desire that is both quirkily amusing and a little sad—”I have to go on making a living,” she insists, “so I can die.” Then there is the bilious and vengeful police captain who teams up with a government agent hoping to thwart national disaster.
And yet Fuller brings something to film noir that is beyond paint-by-numbers predictability or familiarity. His vision of this noirish New York City is far from a mere cardboard façade of clichés and paper-thin characterizations. Fuller evokes a New York that is teeming with compromise, with uneasy camaraderie, with grudging acceptance.
The cops first roust Skip from his shack just as he is hiding the loot he had filched that day. He keeps a wooden crate of beer tied to a rope that he lowers from a back window into the river as a makeshift refrigerator. The crate has a false bottom to stash the items he steals, which he carefully wraps in plastic. The cops come in just after he had concealed the microfilm along with the remainder of his take in the hiding place. He greets the cop by name and in a gesture of solidarity toward the cop (and a gesture of defiance registered by the audience) he tells him to have as many beers as he likes while he searches the shack and while Skip is taken to the police station. He only requests that when the officer is done, he replaces the crate in the river.
Skip is at ease in the police station, greeting the officers, stealing a snack from a desk. Captain Tiger maintains an easy repartee with Moe; Moe radiates a canny charm (she is always accommodating but always on the take). There is a kind of gentle economy that holds almost everyone together in Fuller’s vision of New York. Skip and Moe and Candy aren’t exactly part of the underworld. They are small-time grifters; not low-lifes, they are just getting by, trying to eat. They all have a sense of honor, of justice, but the rules of conduct aren’t spelled out in the tablets of law. Their honor doesn’t involve a scrupulous sense of propriety.
There are the streetwise; then there are the suckers. And the suckers don’t deserve to lose everything—but the contents of their wallets are fair game. Thievery isn’t so much a form of dishonor as it is an exercise in knowing better than the other guy. Most of the cops seem to understand this, as well. The role of the officer is to bust them but more for the purpose of curbing outsized ambition than anything else. It isn’t really about the firm stricture of law; the police are there to make sure the predators don’t completely scare away the prey. Even Captain Tiger isn’t so zealous that he wants to eliminate all the sharks—he just doesn’t appreciate the insolent smile Skip flashes constantly.
The one thing that everyone agrees on is that you’d have to be a louse to knowingly assist the communist spies. As Moe puts it to Skip: “Even in our crummy line of business you gotta draw the line somewhere.” Skip, however, is not sure he concurs. This is, after all, his big score and it fell in his lap. Wouldn’t he be just another sucker to pass it by?
During the first interrogation, government agent Zara proclaims to a bemused Skip: “If you refuse to cooperate, you’ll be as guilty as the traitors that gave Stalin the A-bomb.” Skip turns scornful: “Are you waving the flag at me?” Of course, Skip eventually comes around—or rather he is left no choice because other people are looking out for his better interests.
And yet, that same skepticism toward patriotism that suffuses Fuller’s war films reappears in this context, even though the microfilm is eventually (inevitably) recovered, and the communists lose. Fuller accepts the near impossibility of a different ending in the context (his context and the film’s) of the Cold War. Nevertheless, one can’t help but register some indifference on Fuller’s part with respect to the firm assurance of right and wrong in this situation.
The other characters attempt to cajole Skip into doing the “right thing” by his country. Moe and Candy both appeal to what they regard as his better nature. But Skip isn’t having it and insofar as Skip seems like a reasonable stand-in for Fuller (who both directed the film and wrote the script), we might suspect that Fuller isn’t having it, either. That the communists will lose is a foregone conclusion. That selling them the microfilm is wrong is not.
In most film noir, good and evil are clearly distinguished. One often roots, to some extent, for the anti-hero, the man or woman caught on the wrong side of the righteous in their attempts to attain their desires or perhaps simply to survive. But one also accepts their eventual demise. One accepts it as “the right thing”.
Fuller doesn’t allow for such tidy satisfactions—those peculiarly noirish satisfactions where we get our transgression and our moral rectitude, as well. The communists in this film are the ones with the guns, the ones who commit murder. That sets them apart from the other petty grifters just trying to eat. But Skip is of the latter group. His eating (and eating well) may involve him in the schemes of murderers, but so what? That doesn’t make him a murderer, Fuller seems to suggest, and it doesn’t mean that Skip has any inborn duty to uphold the sanctity of a country that views him as a bit of vermin, an inconvenience that needs to be curbed and regulated.
In a world of moral relativity, there is no point in finally pretending to discover a firm line dividing good and evil. That’s a sucker’s game, a pointless waving of a phony flag. Besides, a fella’s gotta eat.
Criterion Collection released a new edition of Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. The edition includes a new interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith, a 1989 interview with the director, a 1982 French television program in which Fuller discusses the making of the film, and a radio adaptation of the film.