TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir

Until I watched it recently to prepare for this post, I’d only seen Pickup on South Street (1953) once, and that was almost 20 years ago. But it made enough of a lasting impact that as soon as I saw that it was airing this month on TCM, I knew that it would be my noir recommendation.

Pickup tells the story of a woman (Jean Peters) who has her wallet stolen from her purse while traveling on a crowded subway. (I’ll bet I’m not the only viewer who immediately thinks of social distancing while viewing this scene! But anyway.) She’d been serving as a courier for her ex-boyfriend (Richard Kiley) and she was on her way to make her last delivery, not knowing that she’s been carrying classified information to the Communists. She also didn’t know that her latest dropoff – which was on microfilm in her pilfered wallet – was a new patent for a chemical formula. The happenstance theft by a wily pickpocket (Richard Widmark) ties together a set of characters and sets off a chain of events leading to deception, violence, and murder.

Love in the era of noir.

Masterfully directed by Samuel Fuller, who would later helm such noirs as House of Bamboo (1955), and The Crimson Kimono (1959), the film serves up a combination of unremitting noirish doom and the battle against Communism, with a dash of a love story tossed in for good measure. It’s a riveting, superbly acted feature – if you haven’t already, you simply must put it on your watch list this week.

This film marked the second time I ever saw Jean Peters on screen. The first time was in Niagara (1953), where she played the aptly named Polly Cutler – a Midwestern housewife clad in sensible blouse-and-skirt combinations and flat shoes. Her also-aptly-named-Candy in Pickup couldn’t be more different. I really find it hard to believe that this is not only the same actress, but that the two films were released in the same year. When we first see her, she’s wearing a white, form-fitting dress, matching pocketbook and gloves, and she’s got a pouty, insolent look on her face. And then when she opens her mouth! This common-sounding, streetwise drawl comes out, and you’re instantly drawn to her, wondering where she came from and what she’s all about. She’s utterly fascinating.

Hooker? Or nah?

(Incidentally, I’ve read several reviews about this film, each of which label Candy as a hooker. I don’t where this information came from – the source of this knowledge totally escapes me. There are only two character exchanges that might possibly hint at this avocation; in the first, Candy’s ex-fella remarks that she’s “knocked around a lot – you know people that know people.” And Candy responds, “You gonna throw that in my face again?” And later, after Candy asks Skip how he got to be a pickpocket, he retorts, “How’d you get to be what YOU are?” But, honestly, I don’t know how the leap was made from these comments to Candy being a hooker. If somebody can shine some light on this for me, I’d be most appreciative!)

Widmark is top-notch. (So what else is new?)

As ex-con, petty thief Skip McCoy (if that isn’t a perfect name for a pickpocket, I don’t know what is), Richard Widmark turns a typically stellar performance. At his home in a sparsely furnished riverfront shack, he cannily stores his ill-gotten gains in a crate submerged beneath the water beside his home. Cooler than the other side of the pillow, Skip is fascinating to watch – fearless, calm under fire, quick-thinking, it doesn’t take him long to realize that the microfilm in his possession is worth a whole lot more than he’d bargained for when he slipped the wallet from Candy’s purse. And despite the admonishments from police about the film falling into the wrong hands, Skip’s hankering for cash far outweighs any sense of patriotic duty he might possess.

Everything’s better with Thelma Ritter.

Thelma Ritter is on hand as Moe Williams, a world-weary, hardscrabble survivor who lives over a tattoo parlor and ekes out a living peddling information and selling ties. She’s saving every spare dime to buy a headstone and private burial plot in Long Island – if she were to be buried in Potter’s Field, it would “just about kill” her. With her finger on the pulse of the criminal underworld, she enters the story when police – who are hot on the trail of the Communist ring – retain her to help find the identity of the pickpocket and the possessor of the stolen microfilm. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Ritter (as usual) steals every scene, and that’s no small feat in this picture. Plus, in a movie rife with great lines, Ritter has one of my favorites during a conversation with Skip: “Listen, I knew you since you was a little kid – you was always a regular kinda crook. I never figured you for a louse. Even in our crummy kind of business, you gotta draw the line somewheres.”

Pickup on South Street will grab you, grip you, and hold your attention from start to finish – tune into TCM on Friday, May 29th (which also happens to be my mom’s 92nd birthday!) – you’ll be glad you did.

~ by shadowsandsatin on May 25, 2020.

12 Responses to “TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir”

  1. Great review. I love this film too. Great cast. Thelma ,heartbreaking. That scene with Richard Kiley.

  2. This is very high on my list of favorite Noirs. The cast work well together. It’s hard to choose a favorite Thelma Ritter role but I think Moe would be it.

    Jean Peters always credited Marilyn with showing her how to be sexy. Peters wasn’t sure if she had it in her. She needn’t have worried.

    As for her being a hooker or not, it’s not quite clear. I wouldn’t say she’s a professional one. However, as far as I remember there’s also the quote that she’s kissed a lot of guys. We can take that however we want to. She’s certainly not squeaky-clean.

    • Hi, Anke –

      Thank you for your “hooker” insights! I definitely remember her saying that she’d kissed a lot of guys. Interesting about Marilyn Monroe — I read that Marilyn was considered for the part but she was deemed to be too sexy for the role. Peters certainly hit just the right note.

      • I think both Monroe and Ava Gardner were considered for the part. But I guess both already had that sex goddess status that wouldn’t quite fit the role. Peters was a bit grittier.

        • Yes — I also read that Shelley Winters and Betty Grable were either considered for the part or, in the case of Winters, actually had the part! Of all of these, I think that they certainly picked the right person (although I can see Shelley in the part more than any of the others).

  3. I’m glad you mentioned the hooker thing. I’ve lost count of the number of old movies where I’ve read reviews after watching only to find out so-and-so was a prostitute. What?? I know The Code forced some things “between the lines”, but it seems I’m a very naive strictly “on the lines” viewer.

  4. Hope you and your family are OK, Karen. Thanks, as always for the tips-TCM and my puppy are saving my sanity! Take care. Dail


    • Wow, Dail — you must have written this right around the time I was thinking about you! I’m putting my house back together after having some painting done (I’m going to have a whole new house by the time this is all over, LOL), and my eye fell on the book by Kliph Nesteroff that you gave me! Great minds. We’re all doing well — hope you and your puppy (send me a pic!) are too! Take care of yourself!

  5. During her high school years, I introduced my daughter to Samuel Fuller’s movies. There wasn’t a one, Pickup on South Street included, that didn’t leave her goggle-eyed with her jaw on the ground as if she were a Tex Avery cartoon character.

    I think she’ll be pleased to know the movie has come around again.

  6. Widmark was so creepy and strong in this one.

  7. I love, LOVE Thelma in this film. She’s perfectly cast (as always).

    I hope your mother had a wonderful birthday!

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