(Originally posted on 2/25/04)
Sam Fuller’s films are raw, gritty, emotionally turbulent, and vicious, and his 1950 noir potboiler Pickup on South Street is 80 minutes of breathless genre fun infused with pure, uninhibited passion. Fuller’s tight close-ups capture the sweaty, wild-eyed emotions of his characters, and his energetic camera’s quick, jarring zooms and pull-backs amplify the freewheeling, anarchic action. Noir icon Richard Widmark, his devilish Cheshire cat grin taunting any and all notions of propriety, is a charming weasel of an ex-con named Skip McCoy (great name!). On the NYC subway, Skip lifts a woman’s (Jean Peters) wallet, only to discover that he’s stolen government secrets that were being delivered to communists. As the cops and the communists both vie to attain the important microfilm Skip has accidentally pilfered, the thief must decide what’s more important -- money or country? The story’s fear of an insidious threat that compels cops and criminals to work together toward a common patriotic goal is, as critic Luc Sante points out in the new Criterion DVD’s liner notes, reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s M. It’s also a quintessential Red Scare melodrama given an extra bit of loopy, action-packed flavor by Fuller’s bristling direction. The romance between Widmark and Peters (who looks better than she acts) feels nonsensically grafted onto the story out of duty to noir conventions, but Widmark’s typically impassioned, slightly zany performance -- as well as a stunningly empathetic death scene by Thelma Ritter as motherly police informant Mo -- help make Pickup on South Street a prickly, hot-blooded gem.