Few better openings than in that sweaty subway car, with Skip's fingers sliding into Candy's purse
Apr 8, 2011
Samuel Fuller is hardly one of America's great directors. I'm not sure he qualifies as one of Hollywood's great craftsmen. But he certainly ranks up there with the best of Hollywood's professionals who were willing to march to their own music. During the time he worked for Hollywood studios, he knew how to take an assignment, shape the middling material handed to him and then turn it quickly and efficiently into something usually better than its parts...on time and on budget.
Pickup on South Street is a case in point. On the surface it's one more of Hollywood's early Fifties' anti-Commie movies, complete with appeals to patriotism, a hard-boiled hero and a slimy (and copiously perspiring) bad guy. Fuller turns this bag of Hollywood clichés into a taut, exciting drama with any number of off-kilter twists. The hero, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), is a three-time loser, a petty crook with soft fingers who doesn't change his stripes until the very end. The girl in the caper, Candy (Jean Peters), has a level of virtue that would be easy to step over if you're so inclined. One of the most appealing characters, Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), is a stoolie. And in an unusual approach to Hollywood's battle against Commies, the appeals to patriotism fall on deaf ears; the hero isn't motivated by anything so ennobling. He just wants payback for a personal reason, and winds up becoming...at least for now...a good guy.
Plus, all the actors were mostly assigned to Fuller by the studio. He had to make do. Widmark by now had established his presence as an actor and star, but Peters is a surprise. She gives a fine portrait of a woman sexy and dumb, and no better than her boy friends...or her clients...want her to be. And Richard Kiley, who later would become a two-time Tony award winning star on Broadway, is convincingly slippery and cowardly. It's hard to remember that he was the actor who inflicted on us, I mean introduced to us, "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha,
More than anything else, this tale of a pickpocket who picks a purse in a subway car and finds himself with microfilmed secrets instead of cash, pursued by the Feds and the Commies, moves straight ahead with great economy. The whole enterprise, with a classic noir look, only takes 80 minutes to tell. The dialogue, with Fuller as screenwriter, has a partly corny, partly pungent hard-boiled pulp fiction style. "That muffin you grifted...she's okay," one character says to Skip about Candy. Fuller moves us just fast enough from scene to scene to keep us hanging on what will come next. Then Fuller throws in the character of Moe Williams. All of a sudden the story ratchets up to a whole new level of interest, part comedy relief and part sad inevitability.
The thing I like best about the movie is how the opening exemplifies Fuller's talents and strengths. In 2 minutes and 15 seconds, starting right after the credits, Fuller is able to instantly power up the movie, to establish for us what the story is about, and to show us what kind of characters -- Skip and Candy -- we're going to be involved with. And he does this with so much enticing curiosity in that hot, packed subway car that we can just about feel Fuller setting the hook to catch us.
Says Glenn Erickson, in my opinion one of the best of movie critics, "In what should be an inconsequential story, Sam Fuller defines his peculiar view of Americanism from the bottom up: stiff-necked, aggressive self-interest that when fully expressed recognizes what's wrong and what's right and isn't afraid to fight for it. As always in his work, the individuals who fight the hardest for their country are the ones least likely to benefit from the effort." He's right, and it makes for a movie still vivid after 60 years.
The Criterion edition of the DVD looks first-rate. There are several special features. The case also contains a 20-page booklet with a lengthy excerpt about making the movie from a book by Fuller. The enthusiastic comments by Martin Scorsese about Fuller, however, should be taken with a grain of salt. "I think that if you don't like the films of Samuel Fuller," says Scorsese, "then you just don't like cinema." Oh, come on.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Is this all there is to the story of Candy? Not on your life. Did I ever mention that Raymond Hope worked for a while at RKO? This is what happened to Candy and I got it straight from Raymond.
Candy (Jean Peters) in Pickup on South Street:
Y’know, Howie, how hot it can get that your shirt sticks to you like wet Kleenex? That’s how hot it was on that subway car. Everybody pushin’ and pressin’, everybody smellin’ bad, and of course there’s always some creep tryin’ to cop a feel. All a girl can do is yell or just close her eyes and hope her stop is comin’ up next. I knew he was edgin’ up against me but I was so hot and crowded I didn’t care. I sure wasn’t exactly surprised when he started to slide his hand down to my...well, never mind…but then he slipped it into my purse. Now I’ve known a lot of guys. If I say so myself, I’ve always given good value. Favor for favor, and they can call me Candy. And candy is sweet, you know what I mean?
Now don’t get all hot and bothered, Howie. That’s just what I had to do to get by. None of them meant anything to me, not the way you do. Where was I? But this guy was just some two-bit hustler. I got off that car fast…I knew what I had in my purse and it wasn’t just a little cash. That’s when it all started. In the next few days it turns out that I’m going to see a lot of that hustler. He called himself Skip…now isn’t that cute? Skip McCoy. Boy, was he a loser. I found out that he’d spent time in London under another name, still hustlin’, still small time. His idea of the big time? Bein’ a wrestlin’ promoter. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. He got himself sideways with some real crooks, had to lay low pretendin’ to be dead and then came back to the good ol’ States as Skip.
I’ll tell you somethin', Howie, and you know this. Candy is no dummy. I strung him along until I was sure he’d squared everything with the Feds, then I dropped him and headed for the West Coast with all the cash he kept in that silly little metal box. Oh, Howie, now be careful with those hands. Those fingernails are just too long. I know how excited you get when I talk about the guys I’ve known. Candy will be extra sweet to you tonight.
Well, I landed in L. A., changed my name to somethin' more high class, did a little modelin' and wangled a part in a movie. I thought, hey, why not? I’m no actress but neither is anyone else out here. Then I met you, Howie. You changed my life. I’ve never had people waitin’ on me so much before. Never knew a guy before who had such big toys, like that plywood airplane. Never wore a bra before with so much built-in uplift. And today everything’s goin’ to be perfect for us. Who would have thought that in less than an hour little Miss Candy, who escaped from a swelterin’ subway car in Manhattan, was goin’ to turn into Mrs. Hughes in Hollywood.