If Samuel Fuller can hang his legacy on anything, it is his ability to embody contradictions that no normal director could ever reconcile. He could be broader than James Cameron yet as sophisticated a writer as Wilder, a barbarian who seemed to steal a camera and trick a crew into making a movie even as his mise-en-scène communicated layers of meaning. Pickup on South Street, his 1953 noir masterpiece, contains the sort of anti-Communist sentiment you'd expect from a cheap genre film in the early '50s, yet its politics are so deliberately vague that producers could simply change some lines in dubbing to change the Communist MacGuffin to drugs in order to play the film in commie-loving France. No editing to the film itself was necessary.
The supposed anti-Communism streak can only be seen in a few lines of dialogue, perfunctory crowd-pleasing sentiment that wards off any criticism from the "patriots." Some of those lines even point out how uninformed the general public is about the Reds. "What do I know about the Commies?" asks a stool pigeon central to the story. "Nothin.' I know one thing: I just don't like 'em."
What Fuller does instead with his villains -- if one can even delineate any character in this film as even slightly heroic to offset the others -- is play upon something more primal. The Communists filled a role in the American consciousness normally occupied by the bogeyman in the closet. Like the killer in M, the handful of Soviet collaborators represent a dark force within everyone that transcends anything so petty and fleeting as national loyalty. After a certain point, the object they chase becomes irrelevant to the beast they cannot tame, and nobody tackles that sort of thing with the same flair as Fuller.
Opening in a subway car as packed passengers engage in the standard behavior of public transportation use: not looking overly hostile but generally avoiding eye contact and shrugging off physical proximity as everyone must get close but strive not to get too close. One man slinks up to a bombshell and picks her purse. Funnily enough, the eye contact he maintains with the woman to avoid suspicion attracts the audience's suspicion instantly given how deliberately everyone else on the train avoids any kind of contact. With a magnificent use of close-ups that Robert Bresson must have studied before making Pickpocket, Fuller creates suspense immediately. As far as we know, this criminal is just pinching a wallet. Who is this guy? Is the woman important? Why is that other man watching them intently, and what does he see?
Only after the pickpocket exits the train and the victim eventually gets off at her stop do the pieces start to fall into place. The woman, Candy (Jean Peters), realizes she's missing her billfold and jumps on the phone to call her lover, Joey, but their conversation, vague as it is, suggests she lost more than money. At last, things become clear: the second man in the train was a cop, but he was watching the woman, not the pickpocket. He knows she's carrying government secrets, even if she doesn't, and the theft sets off a race to find the crook, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) that pits Commies who don't display any outward dedication to the Red cause versus cops who don't show any serious commitment to America. Everyone involved is just doing what they're forced to do.
This existentialist streak complicates the narrative, turning what might have been an 80-minute piece of fluff into an exploration of feelings of isolation, unchangeable fate and the price of blind, automatic devotion to a cause. Everyone slaps around Candy, from her boyfriend to the cops to Skip himself when the two finally meet, but she takes all of it, and all the thinly veiled catcalls that she's a whore. Yet when she discovers she was carrying Red secrets, she collapses, terrified of being a Red. For audiences then, this might have been the perfect example of the evil of Communism, a black mark that superseded all other social taboos and transgressions. Today, we can see Fuller's intent more clearly: this woman is in her own personal hell, and the one thing that upsets her is an insinuation on something as indirect as a political affiliation?
Fuller further muddies the traditional arcs of Hollywood narratives by creating a disturbing relationship between Skip and Candy, one that comes off as aggressive, even rapacious, on Skip's part and wretchedly codependent on Candy's. Yet Fuller ironically scores their scenes with frothy, romantic violin swells, giving an audience the turgid romance they so love even as he rubs their faces in how dark those kinds of relationships really are.
And the dialogue, dear readers. Oh, it's so hard-boiled I wanted to tap my TV screen with a spoon and peel off the pixels. The FBI agent working with the police captain confronts Skip about the need for him to turn over the microfilm. Skip, of course, doesn't want to because he's already got three strikes and knows that turning over the film will earn him his fourth conviction, an automatic life sentence. "If you refuse to cooperate, you'll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb," urges the agent. Skip, such an arrogant smart-ass you want to reach into the film and slap him, disinterestedly fires back, "You wavin' the flag at me?"
With such rotten characters, it's no wonder that even the film's moral center, the stool pigeon Moe (Thelma Ritter), is far from saintly. She first bursts in on Capt. Tiger and Agent Zara's investigation as if a kindly old lady coming in for a nice chat. When the fed leaves the room, she instantly starts singing to the captain, giving up the name of Skip, whom she's practically raised all his life and genuinely loves. She makes reference to feeding her kitty, by which she means a large wad of cash she's saved from her legitimate work selling neckties and the reward money she's collected over the years from ratting on crooks. Her nest egg takes a dark turn: rather than some fund to get her out of the projects, the cash is meant to get her a nice burial plot in a fancy graveyard and a lavish funeral. Fuller's camera moves in for one of its blisteringly effective close-ups when Tiger warns her that she shouldn't carry that wad around lest someone in her rough neighborhood steal it and she wind up in the rundown cemetery in Potter's Field. Ritter, a supremely talented comedic performer, turns so somber in an instant that you can't even laugh when she fearfully mumbles "Look, Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter's Field, it would just about kill me."
The people of Pickup on South Street all use each other. The cops use Moe the way the Reds use Candy. Skip uses both women, the former for nurturing and support and the latter for sexual conquest. Even Moe and Candy exploit each other, Candy using Moe to get to Skip as Moe uses her to add more money to her burial fund. Loyalty is portrayed as a sucker's game in which a dominant force extracts from the weak until there's nothing left to give. But some of them do regret it and wish it were better: when Skip discerns Moe was the one who sold him out, he doesn't hold a grudge, saying she's gotta eat too. Fuller never dips into outright nihilism, but he makes sure that every potentially heartwarming aspect of the film is undercut with a horror that prevents easy escape.
It's not always easy to tell in a Fuller film whether the cast he assembled understood what it is he wanted, given how brazenly contradictory everything he ever wrote was. But he's got some magnificent performances here. Widmark was one of the great screen villains and antiheroes, able to mix his innocent looks -- he always looked like a teenager playing dress-up on a set -- with a sociopathic glare that sends chill after chill down the spine every time the camera captures the sinister twinkle in his eyes. Peters, on the other hand, will never make any short list of the greatest actresses, nor even a long list. But she absolutely and completely radiates pure sex in this movie, practically taped into each dress and breathily delivering each line. She's so electric that she seems a femme fatale even when she reveals herself almost instantly to be a victimized shrinking violet who allows herself to be pushed around by everyone.
But no one compares to Ritter, who commands every scene she's in and casts a pall over the final act when Joey comes 'round her apartment looking to take out his fear on a defenseless target. Ritter brings out the nuance Fuller couched in his broad, tabloid writing, first conveying the humor with her ironic self-justifications ("I was brought up to report any injustices to the authorities!") and gradually sinking lower and lower until you can see the world finally break her back. Her kind face belies the methods she's had to resort to in order to survive, and her ragged humanity only looks wholesome when compared to the absence of it in the other characters. In her final moment, a vast monologue that has her surrender to the forces she never even tried to fight in life, only to secure a noble death, she looks through the pathetic Joey, through the camera and through us. This isn't some lazy welfare queen rotting in the projects, this is a proud woman who could never win and finally stops trying even for second place. That Ritter received a nomination for Supporting Actress is no surprise; that she did not win, even over Donna Reed's fine work in From Here to Eternity, is a travesty.
Fuller is the king of small touches. Candy angrily throws down money in a Chinese restaurant to a guy who knows Moe's address as the man casually picks up the bills with his chopsticks and tucks them in his breast pocket. When cops come to Skip's hideout, he offers one a beer as he half-hurls the bottle in such a way that he clearly wants to strike the cop but leave himself an out to avoid an arrest. Skip cuts through Candy's paranoia over being affiliated with Communists through practicality: "So you're a Red, who cares? Your money's as good as anyone's." When Joey shoots Candy for not giving Skip up, the thief visits her in the hospital as the camera moves behind the bed, placing the two characters behind the bed frame's bars. These flourishes are but offshoots of a narrative so deceptively simple in conception and ultimately twisted in execution that I cannot hope to impart all Pickup on South Street has to offer, not for another several viewings yet.
Along with Nick Ray, Fuller was a master of digging through the artifice and false happiness of postwar cinema, tapping into the rich vein of cynicism that such a massive war created and no amount of economic prosperity could obliterate. Pickup on South Street, like the best noirs, is not merely stylized but reflective, tapping into the soul of an America that claimed it had entered a golden age yet had to immediately invent an enemy to fill the gap left by the Nazis just so people still had something to pin their fears upon. By casually stripping away Communism itself as something worthy of fear, Fuller backs up the general Red Scare assertion that we must fear enemies from without far less than those from within. The key difference is where the Red Scare engendered fear of neighbors, Fuller wants us to fear ourselves.