Cold Sweat April 13, 2021
On Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street and The Crimson Kimono
amuel Fuller’s dynamic Pickup on South Street (1953) begins in the subway, dank with summertime sultriness. Its cars teem with sweaty travelers. Everyone is thinking
about how much they’d like to get away from all these people; cinematographer Joseph MacDonald ensures this opening scene, which homes in on one of the cars, almost entirely be shot in claustrophobic close-up to drive in discomfort. But rangy pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), only recently released from jail, thinks about how he would like to get closer to that lush woman with the worthwhile-looking purse over there.
Skip subtly slinks over to this new victim — a former sex worker named Candy (Jean Peters) — and we interestedly drink in his techniques. Look how he utilizes a folded newspaper, methodically intermittent eye contact, to distract his prey from his busily predatory hands. From a technical standpoint, Skip’s comeback gig goes perfectly. The purse might
Jean Peters and Richard Widmark in 1953's Pickup on South Street.
as well have been vacuumed spotless. But its timing couldn't be worse. Candy, it turns out, was transporting a mysterious piece of microfilm across town for her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kelly), who is involved in shady dealings she doesn’t know much about, as a sort of final favor. (“How many times do I have to tell you — we’re not criminals!” Joey says in an early scene — it’s the most he’ll offer.) Candy also doesn’t know that two undercover police officers have been following her for some time now; they were sitting across from her while Skip worked his magic. This little strip contains information they have reason to believe could imperil national security. They also have reason to believe that Joey, unbeknownst to Candy, might be a communist spy using her as a pawn.
Pickup on South Street is superficially postured as anti-communist propaganda. Communism, like in basically any other American movie of the era with the same fixation, becomes a synonym for evil in capital letters, with little by way of ideology or actual motivation ever explicated on. But this isn’t, to my eye, a thriller chiefly concerned with an everyday fight against the red. It’s more an antsy thriller about desperation, and the lengths to which its three opportunistic primary characters — Skip, Candy, and necktie saleswoman-slash-frequent stool pigeon Moe (an outstanding Thelma Ritter), who has a friendly relationship with Skip — will go to stave off ruin while unimaginable danger gets improbably higher. I thought of the movie less as a race-against-time feature where communism is the antagonistic opponent and more an almost Darwinian contest of a film where anything that might assure a few more days of survival is up for grabs. Who will survive?
Pickup on South Street’s three principals had already been living in constant precarity before the trouble with the microfilm came to the fore. They’re accustomed to their livelihoods being regularly threatened. Fuller’s screenplay glistens with wearied street-wise talk — exchanges between people who have clearly had to negotiate for their lives before. This sense of ever-present peril — the potential for even seemingly happy moments to go haywire — is absorbingly summarized in the scene where Candy confronts Skip for the first time at the tumbledown riverside shack where he lives. The whole encounter so fluidly teeter-totters from flirtation to hostility that half of what makes it absorbing is how Widmark, Peters, and Fuller manage to ward off tonal ungainliness. The noticeably delicate precision of its execution has an almost musical quality, as do the succeeding scenes of stunningly brutal violence. One false note could set everything off, but you can tell Fuller knows how to avoid them. (Punches are often followed by an artful shove into surrounding architecture; certain moments have an uncanny feeling of modern action choreography.)
The three leads know how to be the right kind of ruthless.
Touchingly, though, they’re forgiving of each other when they have to employ it on one another in a tight spot. “Moe’s all right — she’s gotta eat,” Skip shrugs when police imply she’s the reason he’s believed to be the microfilm’s latest keeper. Pickup on South Street deftly balances sentimentality with sensationalism, to paraphrase critic Chuck Bowen; neither the sentimentality nor the sensationalism ever feels unearned. Like the characters, we relish any time its world’s ceaseless cruelty is muted by temporary senses of care and understanding. Its realism (Fuller was a proponent of the neo-realistic dramas then-vogue in Italy) feels credible. Fuller’s loyalty is never to the powerful but to the people at the bottom of the food chain, working feverishly just to see another day.
Fuller subversively manages to use his leads’ plights to make a discerning anti-capitalist argument despite its pandering McCarthyist bent. Yes, it outwardly agrees that communism, myopically, is a threat to everything that is “good” in America. But in Pickup on South Street, where one of the most memorable lines is Moe chillingly telling an antagonist that she wouldn’t mind if he blew her head off because she’s so tired from working all the time, nothing is offered to make America seem as great as it believes itself to be. (Skip also never clarifies his political leanings, though he decidedly thinks patriotism is laughable.) Willful misunderstandings of communism are only distractions from the quotidian evils capitalism wreaks. “It’s so hard to get up in the morning and get dressed and walk the streets, climb the stairs. I go right on doing it,” says Moe. “I gotta go on making a living so I can die.”
uller’s last movie of the 1950s, The Crimson Kimono
(1959), is another status quo-challenging film noir — not quite as rhythmically executed as Pickup on South Street (1959) (it’s more emotive) but nonetheless vivid
at its best. Although a standard-fare police investigation takes up much of its runtime — a stripper named Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) is shot down after happenstantially witnessing a murder — the movie is loyaler to the romantic triangle that develops between the detectives on the case, Joe Kojaku and Charlie Bancroft (James Shigeta and Glenn Corbett), and a student painter, Christine (Victoria Shaw), who was one of the last people to see Sugar alive.
The movie skews soapy at its most emotional; the investigative scenes (except for periodic hot pursuits of a suspect) don’t have much force. The murder case starts feeling backdropish as the romantic dilemma at the movie’s core — whose underlying passion is too quickly developed to have much weight initially — begins to take narrative precedence. You wish Bancroft and Kojaku’s relationship were developed more. These best friends served in the Korean War together and live in the same apartment, but their bond isn’t established with enough dimension to make what will inevitably be a betrayal have a reverberative sting. We mostly see them acting only basically friendly. (When a mentor of the men, portrayed by a wonderful playing-against-type Anna Lee, remarks that they’re like “two daubs
of paint together — you can never separate them,” we can’t totally feel that closeness.)
But like Pickup on South Street, here again is a mostly well-conceived mixture of the sensational and the sentimental. Brutality and vulnerability co-exist in the movie as defining features without too much of a clash. Its additional explorations of the anxieties and alienations faced by the Japanese-American Kojaku are mostly incisive, momentary didacticism aside. (Shigeta’s performance is the best thing about the movie — one can almost detect his character’s conscience in his work.) The finale brings on a sequence that might be the film’s most indelible. It epitomizes Fuller’s visual astuteness (it takes place during a parade in Chinatown, the faces of passersby framed like dismayed courtroom onlookers) and his way of making his thematic interests clear even when he isn’t being unnaturally overt about them. Even at its least successful, The Crimson Kimono never has a half-heartedness; with these two movies and in his filmography more broadly, Fuller’s empathy for his subjects shines through.
Pickup on South Street: A
The Crimson Kimono: B