Pickup on South Street opens with a striking omission of dialogue and score, heightening our awareness of the film’s pared images and the diamond-hard editing rhythms. On a subway, a beautiful woman, Candy (Jean Peters), is scrutinized by two men who are obviously tailing her. Everything about Candy’s pose is intensely erotic, from the crook of her arm that’s holding the subway railing to the sweat on her skin, to the way she’s cramped up against the other passengers. Soon saddling up to her is Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), who approaches her as the prey she clearly represents to his hunter. Hovering over Candy, Skip makes a show of folding a newspaper, opening her purse, rifling through it, and snatching the contents of interest to him. This fluidly, beautifully staged sequence offers a profound metaphor for violation, showing a pickpocket to be a kind of rapist. Yet Candy doesn’t evince any vulnerability when she discovers the deception. At a villain’s insistence, she matter-of-factly sets about finding Skip so as to remove herself from the chaos that he conjures.
This beginning, setting the stage for a chase narrative in which Skip and Candy battle a communist cabal intent on smuggling American government secrets into their homeland, is among the most startlingly direct sequences of Samuel Fuller’s career, and the remainder of Pickup on South Street manages to match it. Like the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is a potent illustration of just how abjectly meaningless most plots are (which is why self-righteous “spoiler” complaints are so inherently ridiculous), and not only in genre films. Fuller’s “yarn,” to use the director’s preferred parlance, is dispensed with in a handful of minutes, with the stolen microfilm of American secrets that drives it astutely functioning as the most elemental and abstract of MacGuffins. Like the stolen money in Psycho or the severed ear in Blue Velvet, the microfilm is an entrance into a world, a pretext for an artist to untether their imagination.
The world of Pickup on South Street is familiar to admirers of Fuller’s other films, abounding in a lurid cavalcade of unforgettable oddballs who collectively show America to be a place of cracked schemers and dreamers working for their own interests. Like many crime-film directors, Fuller regards his crooks fondly as the people who’re willing to see America for what it is and play by the real rules accordingly, while the cops are hypocrites who hide their prudish self-righteousness behind their badges. There’s a weird, fascinating conflict of politics in Fuller’s vision, as it glorifies both an informal socialism as well as an ethos that’s most typically described as survival of the fittest. The criminals sell each other out, particularly in a wonderful running gag with professional stoolie Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), but warn each other about said sell-outs, holding no grudges, while eventually dying to protect others. On top of this contradiction, Fuller grooves on a definitively masculine urge to behave as a metaphorical alley cat, doing whatever the hell you like, precisely for the hell of it.
Fuller’s a master of unpretentious hot-house poetry, and that theoretical contradiction of terms gives one an idea of the irresolvable, elegantly compact flourishes that abound in his films. Tiny, precise grace notes allow the audience to discern the larger world that’s barely glimpsed. A criminal informant, a stoolie of stoolies, is shown, for instance, to be shoveling in Chinese food as Candy attempts to buy information about Moe from him; he talks her out of a requisite amount of money, and gingerly lifts the wadded up bills with his chopsticks in a self-consciously pulpy gesture that’s understood as such. This is a hood playing the role of a hood, living up to Candy’s preconceived notions of him. Before Moe is murdered for revealing the depths of her decency, we see her curled up in bed with pillows piled behind her as she listens to the record player. It’s a defining image of comfort, of the refuge we build for ourselves from our stress and disappointments, and this image is soon perversely turned on itself when it’s revealed to be more dangerous than imagined, as Moe notices the black boots of an interloper perched on her bed. This violation reaches its heartbreaking climax verbally, when Moe says that she’s been working all her life to die, or, implicatively, to die with a dignity that transcends her life as a two-bit hustler.
Like most brilliant thriller directors, Fuller renders violence musically. He will typically open a violent scene with an alternation of very close close-ups, which are some of the most intense and evocative close-ups in American film, building to a release in which the people in close-up fight in a wider frame, moving diagonally from the background toward the foreground, or vice versa. This is the secret to Fuller’s compositional dynamism: the use of the foreground as a built-in, low-budget 3D effect that’s considerably more effective than any real 3D. (Billy Wilder favored this sort of blocking on occasion, as in Kirk Douglas’s death scene in Ace in the Hole.) The close-ups suggest the initial refrain of a song, with the wider-framed fighting serving as the explosive chorus that gives voice to all the subterranean desperations and hungers coursing through Fuller’s world. In Pickup on South Street, this idea of musical violence is most vividly embodied by the scene in which Candy stands up to her quasi-boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley), who beats her senseless and tries to kill her. But Candy lives, as she must, in a flourish that speaks to Fuller’s remarkable blend of sensationalism with sentimentality. This film is an amazing example of what might be called noir jazz.