Pickup on South Street is cited by the Book as one of the lone Cold War spy thriller masterpieces. I don’t know if I would throw the word masterpiece at it, but it was very well done, especially for a film that was rather early in director Samuel Fuller’s career. What was especially notable for me was how well done the picture was, in just about every regard. There’s a sense in watching Pickup on South Street that seems to convey that the film knows how good it can be, and strives to achieve everything that it can. While this would be admirable on its own, it is made even more so by the film’s ultimate success in its endeavors.
Skip McCoy is a pickpocket, who runs the gamut of New York City subway trains looking for marks. He finds one in a woman named Candy, and easily picks a wallet from her purse. What he doesn’t realize, and neither does Candy at first, is that the wallet contains more than money; it contains a strip of film that Candy’s Communist-spy ex Joey was having her deliver to his handlers, and soon a race is on between Joey and his higher-ups, Candy, and the police (who’ve been tailing Candy in hopes she would lead them to the Commies) to find Skip first and get the film back. The film’s plot was surprisingly dense for such a short film, generally working at most of the time. When it didn’t, however, such as with Candy and Skip’s brewing chemistry (which isn’t brewing very well, at least for me), it was noticeable, but the film moved at such a brisk pace that we never ended up staying with these noticeable flaws for very long. Where the film did work was with Richard Widmark as Skip, Thelma Ritter as the stoolie Moe, and the film’s cinematography, which was surprisingly adept for what felt like a general B movie. The camera moved a lot more often than one would expect from a Hollywood production of the early 1950s, and the film made notable use of close-ups and even extreme close-ups to keep a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia ever-present around the characters.
The ending was kind of haphazard and anticlimactic, but other than that (and the so-called chemistry between the two leads), there was very little to not like about this one. I don’t know if I’d watch it again, but I’d certainly be willing to give it another go, to see if the film is still as engaging when most of the mystery and intrigue is gone after the initial viewing. What ended up being another surprise to me was that this film got picked for the Criterion Collection; it just didn’t seem the “instant classic” that would scream to be added to such a prestigious catalogue. It was still very well done, though, entertaining and not overstaying its welcome, so I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see it if I were you.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10