Richard Widmark and Jean Peters in Pickup on South Street (1953)


(director/writer: Samuel Fuller; screenwriter: based on the story Blaze of Glory by Dwight Taylor; cinematographer: Joe MacDonald; editor: Nick De Maggio; music: Leigh Harline; cast: Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe), Murvyn Vye (Capt. Dan Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey), Willis B. Bouchey (Zara), Milburn Stone (Winoki), Victor Perry (Lightning Louie), Henry Slate (MacGregor); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jules Schermer; 20th Century Fox; 1953)

“Engagingly captures the hysteria over Reds and the underworld scene of the early 1950s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Too much flag-waving, overindulgent political messages, and Commie bashing go into this bombastic Sam Fuller (“The Big Red One”/”The Crimson Kimono”) spy thriller. Nevertheless, it engagingly captures the hysteria over Reds and the underworld scene of the early 1950s in New York City, as Fuller makes the sympathetic characters to be the lowlife marginalized ones (a grifter, whore, and stoolie), and not the respectable law enforcers. It’s derived from the story Blaze of Glory by Dwight Taylor, and is written by Fuller. We are supposed to be “hip” enough to realize that there’s a big difference between a traitor and a pickpocket, as Fuller is at his contradictory best intermeshing contrasting themes in this hunt for Red spies movie.

In a crowded Manhattan subway, “three-time loser” Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), a petty criminal released from prison a week ago, picks the purse of a former prostitute, Candy (Jean Peters), and accidentally lifts some valuable stolen government microfilm she was to deliver for her enigmatic ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) to a Mr. Big (someone she thinks is a businessman). FBI agent Zara (Willis B. Bouchey) has been tailing her, knowing the microfilm contains valuable scientific data to be used by the Commies and that she’s passing it on to a Mr. Big in the Commie party–the one the cop wants most to nab.

Zara enlists the help of the local police to locate the pickpocket. Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) uses paid informer Moe (Thelma Ritter), an elderly lady who keeps tabs on underworld figures and would sell them out for a price, to learn that Skip McCoy is his man. Moe also peddles ties, lives in a shabby apartment, and is tired of life–planning to die soon and saving up so she can have a proper burial.

The police search Skip’s waterfront digs, an abandoned shack on the East River, without success; they can’t get the self-absorbed man to cooperate and turn over the microfilm–which he now views as a possible big mealticket item. When the dullish fed asks “Do you know what Communism is? The breezy Skip brushes him off by saying, “Who cares?”

Candy helps the lawmen because she doesn’t want to be identified as a Commie lover, while Skip only helps to settle a personal score when he discovers that Joey roughed Candy up (Skip has developed a romantic interest in Candy). As for Moe, she utters the mantra of the silent majority, “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I just know I don’t like them.” The only one Moe won’t peddle info to is the sleazy Commie Joey, no matter what he may do to her, which elevates her in the eyes of Fuller to sainthood even if she’s a rat.

The use of tabloid headline Red Scare tactics as a main part of the plot line smacked of political naivety. What packed a wallop was the hard-boiled love scene between Skip and Candy, where he clips her on the jaw and later caresses her bruise, an erotic fusion of brute force and tenderness. The action is captured by the fine black-and-white camerawork of Joe MacDonald, using many tight closeup shots, who proves he has an eye for getting just the right shots of the city (subway, waterfront, and rundown tenements) and his subjects.