The line between politics and art is often fine, if not entirely overlapped. This is most obvious in stories from Marvel Comics’s X-Men, a series exploring the ultimate minority group trying to make peace against great xenophobia. In a similar vein, there’s DC Comic’s Superman, a tale of an immigrant doing his best to contribute to his new home without entirely losing his culture of origin. This one you have to look for a little harder than X-Men, but the message is there all the same. For the 1953 Samuel Fuller-directed (Shock Corridor) Pickup on South Street, politics is nothing more than a red herring or, perhaps more accurately, nothing more than set dressing for a pulpy noir centered on a group of characters living on the fringe of society. In this latest release from Criterion, Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is not only given the 4K restoration treatment, but it also offers a bevy of supplemental materials to help fans new and old learn about the director, the film, and more.
What was any other day for pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) was a special one for courier Candy (Jean Peters), as she was entrusted with a special package to deliver to an expectant buyer. Utilizing his specific skillset, Skip robbed Candy mid-train ride and inadvertently placed himself at the center of conflict between the U.S. government and a group of communist agents. With the cops and communists on one side of him, Candy on the other, Skip commits to seeing the game he’s entered into all the way through, unaffected by the stakes, interested only in what he can get out of it.
Based on a story from Dwight Taylor (Nightmare) and adapted by Fuller, Pickup has few white hat heroes as it focuses primarily on the kinds of characters audiences see as supporting or in the background in a traditional crime thriller. This means we get characters like McCoy, possessing a moral code that only runs within their own interests. What’s fascinating about this is the context of the era in which Pickup is released: The Cold War, 1947-1991. In this period of American history, to be accused of fraternizing with the enemy, intentionally or unknowingly, was enough to have your freedoms shattered. There didn’t need to be evidence, only the perception of alignment against America and — boom! — you’re a traitor. That McCoy is presented as more than apathetic to the insinuation that he’s consorting with Communists while also prickling at pleas of patriotism is shocking. So shocking, in fact, that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover attempted to take Fuller to task over this during a lunch with the director and 20th Century Fox studio executive/producer Darry F. Zanuck. This being a film about those who live on the fringes of America, Fuller never wavered and it’s clear, upon completion of viewing the film, that politics was never important to the character beats of the story, they only serve as a MacGuffin to give the narrative tension and weight.
When it comes to crime stories or noirs, the lead is often someone the audience can get behind, someone to root for. They’re usually a detective or someone with a strong moral compass so that, even when they do dastardly things, the audience supports them. McCoy is not this kind of character. It’s not that he’s a pickpocket with three strikes under his belt (a fourth sending him to prison for life), it’s that he’s almost entirely out for himself at every opportunity. He steals from Candy when he’s been out of prison for close to a week, sees the promises of law enforcement to wipe his slate clean as nothing more than trickery, and doesn’t budge when his patriotism is called into question. To McCoy, money spends and what’s he’s got has value. Combine this with the fact that he’s a bit more of a ruffian than a rapscallion, and you’ve got a character that’s often hard to endure. Depending on how you feel about the character will shape how you view the romance that blossoms between Candy and McCoy, but it doesn’t feel authentic in the slightest, mostly due to McCoy’s slow boil anger and violent tendencies. Perhaps it’s one of those things that was common in cinema during the period, but seeing a man knock out a woman, wake her up by pouring beer on her face, then offering to massage the space he hurt before trying to kiss her just creeps me out. This feeling is made worse when Candy somehow falls for him. Their coming together makes some narrative sense as it’s hinted at in the dialogue-absent opening — composed, shot and executed beautifully, by the way — via the physical performances from Peters and Widmark. Yet, one can’t help but feel that Candy is going from one bad choice to another without learning anything and McCoy is not anyone’s redemptive hero, despite what his actions say at the end of the film. This is, of course, the beauty of looking back on cinema to examine the context of the era in which it was released, the style at the time, and how progressive or transgressive it is. Pickup demonstrates Fuller’s, Widmark’s, and Peters’s talent, but that doesn’t mean the ideas behind it are worth exalting it. Using McCoy to explore the fringes of society and the requirement to lean nihilistically in order to survive is fascinating, but the romance angle reeks of a dated by-gone era.
If examining Pickup on South Street as it was viewed upon release up to now, then the supplemental materials are going to provide a great deal of satisfaction, even if the two purchasing options offer different benefits. For instance, the Blu-ray includes the new 4K digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, while the DVD has a HD digital transfer with restored image and sound. It’s similar, yet just different enough to make a difference on playback. Similarly, the DVD edition is the only way to get an on-screen essay from Fuller, a poster filmography, and publicity stills. However, the Blu-ray is the only way to get the 35-minute interview with film critic and author Imogen Sara Smith, wherein she explores the many facets of the film. Also separating the two editions is the included chapter from Fueller’s posthumously published 2002 autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. This is only included on the Blu-ray edition, whereas both the DVD and Blu-ray’s liner notes do include essays from author/film critic Lou Sante and filmmaker Martin Scorsese, no stranger to Criterion releases. **Important notice** The special features list from the Criterion site does not include the 1954 Hollywood Radio Theater adaption of Pickup on South Street at all, yet it is included on the Blu-ray. As this was the only review copy sent, I can’t speak to whether the radio show is included on the DVD as well. I can tell you that it’s the entire story told in audible form with a static imagine of an old-time radio microphone for the entire run. Should you decide to partake of the radio version, consider your home theater setup and the best way to avoid burn-in. If you can turn off the video component and still hear the audio, that might be the optimum method to enjoy it without damaging your television.
As for the restoration itself, the production notes say that the digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an Oxberry film scanner from a 35 mm negative. The transfer was cleaned up of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitters, flickers, and other visual issues. The original soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm optical soundtrack negative, as well. The end result is a beautiful looking and sounding restoration. The differences in picture and sound become the most evident when enjoying the bonus features, especially during the 1989 interview with Fuller, as the scenes from Pickup haven’t been restored. As such, you can see more of the grain, the shading, and a bit of blurriness. If you enjoyed the restoration work on other releases like Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), Brute Force (1947), or The Naked City (1948), then you’re going to be equally happy here.
It is a weird thing to finish a film feeling more for Thelma Ritter’s Moe Williams, an informant for the local PD played with layers by Ritter, than for the leads, yet here we are. He’s just terrible with little to redeem him outside of his general respect for others in the game, while she is drawn to a man for no explicable reason. Instead, for me, what makes Pickup on South Street memorable is Fuller’s apathy to politics of the age. The dialogue even goes so far as to proclaim that hatred of communists exists without actually understanding what communism is, which seems like a glaring accusation of how the general populace will fear anything they don’t understand. Especially as other terms like Critical Race Theory or the concept of an undocumented immigrant are exploited for political gain today, pushing wider the gap between patriotism and nationalism, we can see now how not very far away we are from 1953 and the power of fear. That Fuller would so subversively explore this in the background of his film is worth a great deal of admiration, even if the final product doesn’t leave the audience yearning for a revisit.
Pickup on South Street Special Features
- On the Blu-ray: New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- On the DVD: High-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound
- New interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City (Blu-ray only) (35:49)
- Interview from 1989 with director Samuel Fuller, conducted by film critic Richard Schickel (19:07)
- Cinéma cinémas: Fuller, a 1982 French television program in which the director discusses the making of the film (11:05)
- Hollywood Radio Theater adaption of the film from 1954, starring Thelma Ritter (52:20)
- On-screen biographical essay on Fuller, poster filmography, and publicity stills (DVD only)
- Sixteen (16) individual Trailers for each of Fuller’s films
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: Essays by author and critic Luc Sante and filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and, for the Blu-ray edition, a chapter from Fuller’s posthumously published 2002 autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking
- Blu-ray cover by Eric Skillman; DVD cover by Lucien S. Y. Yang
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection June 29th, 2021.