Pickup On South Street

1953, Movie, NR, 80 mins


A brutal melodrama set against a backdrop of New York's seedy underworld, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET delves into the shadowy world of federal agents and communist spies.

Widmark is a petty crook, a three-time loser whose actions are motivated solely by greed. When he steals a wallet from the purse of Peters, he finds himself in deeper trouble than he ever imagined. Inside the wallet is top-secret microfilm that Peters is unwittingly transporting for her lover, Kiley, a communist spy she believes to be a patent lawyer. When Kiley discovers that the microfilm has been stolen, he demands that Peters find Widmark and get the film back. Also on Widmark's track are two federal agents who have been shadowing Peters. Both the agents and Peters get information on Widmark's whereabouts from Ritter, an aging ex-pickpocket who supplements her scant income from tie peddling by selling information on underworld criminals. Peters tries to use sex to get the microfilm from Widmark but fails. The agents appeal to Widmark's sense of patriotism, but this, too, fails since Widmark doesn't care about the effect of communism on the American way of life. With all the interest that has been shown in the microfilm, Widmark knows that it is worth a great deal of money, so he holds out for an offer from Kiley. By now Peters has fallen for Widmark, and has turned against Kiley, whom she sees as un-American. Kiley attempts to buy Widmark's address from Ritter, but she proudly refuses to sell to a communist--at any price. Enraged, Kiley kills Ritter. Widmark now has a reason to keep the microfilm out of Kiley's hands--not because Kiley is a communist but because the spy killed a friend of Widmark's. Kiley then returns to Peters (who by now has obtained the film) and mercilessly beats her when he learns of her part in the scheme. After discovering that some of the microfilm is missing and obtaining Widmark's waterfront address, Kiley pays the thief a visit. Widmark eludes Kiley and follows him to a subway station, where Widmark manages to steal back the microfilm. In retaliation for the death of Ritter and the attack on Peters, Widmark pounds Kiley into the pavement and turns him over to the federal agents. Only after Kiley is killed is it revealed that his contact is none other than the federal agent who has been heading up the search for the spy. Having assisted the feds, Widmark is left to finish his romance with Peters and to return to his gutter life.

This provocative film from Sam Fuller is is based on "Blaze of Glory," a straightforward story about drug pushers written by Dwight Taylor. Although this original story line was retained in the dubbed version of the film released in France under the title LA PORTE DE LA DROGUE, Fuller decided to politicize the American version of the film. Unfortunately, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET has been viewed by some as rabidly anticommunist, an assessment that ignores the depth and complexity that Fuller brings to the film. Like so many of Fuller's heroes, Widmark's Skip McCoy fights to retain his individuality in the face of societal pressures. Yet McCoy doesn't foil the communist scheme because of his devotion to the American ideal but because Kiley, who just happens to be a communist spy, has done McCoy wrong. Both Widmark and Peters are superb, but it is Ritter, as the seedy but much-loved Moe, who gives the film its emotional punch, and her performance earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress--something of an oddity for a Fuller-directed B movie. leave a comment

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Pickup On South Street
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