Pickup on South Street (1953); directed by Sam Fuller; screenplay by Sam Fuller; story by Dwight Taylor
Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is classic noir: lowlifes as protagnonists, motivations always questionable. However, these lowlifes live by their own code, built on its own variation on morality, spelled out early on by Thelma Ritter as a police informant. Ritter plays a key character here, and my favorite of her performances: she’s wry, sly, desperate, and doomed in every scene. Richard Widmark is as always fantastic in the tough-guy role, which I might call the homme-fatal, since he’s actually the one in the unpredictable double-crosser role. Conversely, Jean Peters (catch her in Niagara with Marilyn Monroe!) as the duped floozy is the character the audience can best follow, making this an interesting flip-flop of the genre’s usual sex roles.
Fuller makes great use of sets, especially the waterfront shack inhabited by Widmark, a dim, tiny space thrusting various conflicting characters into each other’s faces, quickly leading to punches or kisses, sometimes both!
I was slightly disappointed by the ending, perhaps because redemption in noir is a hard pill for me to swallow and perhaps because I found the characters forging their way in a world of grit and hardship almost entirely divorced from the mainstream to be more compelling, but it’s nice to think that even a career criminal might get a happy ending now and again.