Masters Of Cinema #111 - Pickup On South Street - Blu-ray Review


The central discussion around Samuel Fuller's Pickup On South Street is unmistakably centred on whether it is anti-communist propaganda, or a film which happens to feature communists as the bad guys. The literature that comes with this new Masters Of Cinema release of Fuller's film is pretty unequivocal on which side of the fence it falls.

Firstly, there's a new essay by Murielle Joudet, entitled Pickpocket, in which Joudet supports the film as something more than anti-communist propaganda and cites another source that does the same.

'In his dictionary of cinema, Jacques Lourcelles quite rightly draws attention to the fact that Fuller’s anti-communism is here only to trace a line of demarcation between real and false scoundrels and used only to judge the “relative decay” of each character. Petty criminals are distinguished by an aggressive, yet necessary, individualism that seems harmless next to the grand banditry organised by the communists... it’s above all the portrait of a pickpocket that motivates Fuller, much more so than the anti-communist charge.'

This supports Fuller's own claims, made in his memoir, Fuller On Film and again included in the new Masters Of Cinema booklet.

'Sure, there were communists who believed fervently in Marx and Lenin. But there were also crumbs like Joey [the 'communist' villain of the film] who’d go to work for any “ism” if there was a payoff. People living on the edge of society don’t give a damn about politics. I wanted my film to be told through the eyes of the powerless. Cold war paranoia? Hell, these crooks were more interested in just getting by.'

Fuller goes on to decry the French for altering his film (the villains become drug dealers, not communists), and rightly so, but both his and Joudet's arguments feel thin in what is, blatantly, a film that feeds into the post-war 'commie' paranoia.

The 'hero' of Pickup On South Street eventually becomes Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), a New York pickpocket who already has three strikes against him and is staring down the barrel of a fourth from pugnacious police captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye).

Fuller's aim with McCoy is read by Joudet to be the aim of the film; to personify the pickpocket and tell a story of a petty criminal trying to survive. There's another reading of McCoy; that he is intended to represent the small, everyday criminal, the grifter in post-war America, but only for a political purpose to preach to that very person. McCoy is based in New York, but the film goes out of its way to take him out of the city's individual location: he lives in a shack on the water, with the river as his cooler and a few meagre lifts as his income.

McCoy is Fuller's plea to the slightly-seedy but ultimately fairly harmless side of America: don't become a Joey (Richard Kiley), chasing the big score of communist idealism. Stick to small roots and a modestly badly-obtained income and you'll get the girl: Candy in this case, a beatified Jean Peters who falls for Skip despite him knocking her out in a early meeting... then again, of course, the other choice was Joey.

To say that that depiction is not political is a stretch. Fuller's claim that 'people living on the edge of society don’t give a damn about politics' is also farcical: if anything, people living on the edge of society care more about politics than anyone else if they feel that it can help them to step up. Again, this feeds into Skip, who Fuller pleads with throughout the film to make the right choice. Yes, selling the microfilm he has lifted to the communists might improve his status economically, but will it help in the long run? There's no prizes for guessing who Skip picks and how his life turns out. Turn away from communism, get the girl, turn over a new leaf.

Pickup On South Street then is an overtly anti-communist, political, propaganda film, no matter what Fuller claims, or what he originally intended, but that doesn't mean that, in amongst the nationalist propaganda, there isn't a great deal of worth. Look in particular for Thelma Ritter as Moe, a superlative supporting turn, which garnered her an Oscar nomination.





Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Pickup On South Street is released in the UK on Monday 17th August 2015


By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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