Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Pickup on South Street

"Pickup on South Street" (Samuel Fuller, 1953) By the time Samuel Fuller wrote and directed "Pickup on South Street" for Darryl F. Zanuck* in 1953, he'd already had three tough careers, as an infantryman in WWII, as a street-wise journalist for a New York daily (he was the New York Evening Graphic's crime reporter at the tender age of 17!) and a pulp-fiction novelist and ghost-writer. Fuller knew the seamy side of life, knew how to portray it suggestively to avoid the censors but punch it up to make sure audiences picked up on it. Fuller's movies had a crusty vitality that few directors have successfully emulated (though many have tried). That sort of lesson you learn on the street, not in the video store.

"Pickup on South Street" has amazing sequences, starting with the opening gambit: a couple of fed's are tailing a call-girl, Candy (the soon-to-be-Mrs. Howard Hughes, Jean Peters), whose found some temporary legitimacy as a courier for her ex-boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley), when who should sidle up to her but professional pick-pocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). He gets in close, uses a newspaper as a blind, then deftly violates her purse (no, there is no ambiguity here--Fuller edits it like it's a sexual act, cutting from the purse to a flushed-looking Candy). He intercepts something he doesn't expect--micro-film with industrial secrets. Soon he's being hounded in his squalid little bait-shack domicile by the cops, the fed's, the moll he buzzed, and the communist cell that Joey's really working for. What's a dipper to do? The patter is wise and rapid, the love scenes smoldering and intimate, and the fight scenes look like they hurt! A lot!** (There's a particularly nasty one with Peters and Kiley in which the camera hurriedly rushes back out of the way of the hurling bodies--the best thing about the fights is they look spontaneous and unchoreographed, and quite thuggish) It's hard to believe that Zanuck would approve this film, but he liked his B-roster rough and down in the dirt, and Fuller wouldn't have it any other way. However, just because these folks are all grifters, the cops are nasty creeps, they're all Good Americans, as opposed to the well-tailored, polite communists, and that's Fuller's punch-line to the whole magilla. You can practically hear his wheezing cackle.

* Fuller liked to tell the story of why, after making succesful B-movies he decided to sign a contract with Fox and Zanuck over the other studios. He asked the other studio-heads what they did with the profits from their movies. All gave advice on tax shelters. Zanuck was the only one who said, "We make better movies."

** The fight scenes kept the film from receiving a pass from the Production Code, and had to be filmed a few times before the film could be accepted for exhibition. As it is, Peters goes slamming face-first into a book-case, and Widmark socks Kiley over a subway turnstile, and drags him by his ankles down some stairs, his jaw hitting every step along the way.


Richard Widmark died last week at the age of 93, just when we were getting to know him through a series of naturalistic performances in tough-minded noirs and detective films.

He burst on to the movie scene playing the giggling sociopathic thug Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway's "Kiss of Death," famous for the scene where Udo kicks a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs--it's Noir 101. It makes all the highlight reels. And for that, they nominated him for an Academy Award.

But Widmark had a real versatility, playing both heroes and villains and the various shades of gray. He could be counted on to be believeable in any extreme. And he could play your average "Joe"--but better. He was dependable, even as a gangster. And you never thought of his heroes as naive. Widmark conveyed intelligence in all his roles, whatever their moral stripe.

My favorite scene of his is an odd one: a long sustained rambling conversation in a held two-shot with James Stewart on a river bank in the John Ford "Two Rode Together." The two actors are just basically trying to convey the information and Ford probably told them to "make it interesting" (and if they didn't Ford would hector them for the rest of the day), and the two, Stewart and Widmark, are just jawing, improvising as they go, but it never feels like actors showing off--it's two veterans being people through force of personality, and long after the movie has faded from memory that little conversation--was it five minutes long?--remains with its prevarications, its annoyed pauses, and its subtle hilarity. I've seen DeNiro and Hoffman improvising. It's not nearly as much fun.

There are two more Widmark's on the docket waiting to be sprung on these pages, one directed by Jules Dassin, who also recently passed. He became for me, just before his death, one of the most interesting things to see in a movie, and when it's all rushing at you 24 frames a second, that's saying quite a bit. When someone dies just as you begin to really appreciate them, the loss is just a bit more palpable.

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