A true original in American cinema, few filmmakers in or outside of Hollywood had quite the independent streak like Samuel Fuller. A former crime reporter in New York City and an infantryman in WWII with the 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”, which – of course – was the title of the 1980 movie based off of his wartime experience there), he began as screenwriter before making the leap to directing with I Shot Jesse James (1949). Following The Steel Helmet (1951), he was brought to 20th Century Fox by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck on a seven picture deal; Pickup on South Street came from that agreement. Criterion has revisited their previous DVD release with a Blu-ray upgrade.
The Production: 4.5/5
Small time pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) got more than he bargained for when he lifted the wallet from the purse of Candy (Jean Peters) on a New York City subway. Included along with money in the wallet is a microfilm containing a secret formula coveted by both the US and the Soviets. Now, Skip (a three time loser in the eyes of the law) finds himself between manipulative authorities – represented by Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) and federal agent Zara (Willis Bouchey) – and the unwitting courier’s Communist shot callers, one of which is represented by Candy’s former lover Joey (Richard Kiley). Yet, Skip soon finds himself becoming the object of affection for Candy, who – along with informant Moe (Thelma Ritter) – will inspire the “cannon” to make a fateful decision.
Clearly finding inspiration from the highly charged political climate of the day, Pickup on South Street goes beyond its noir roots. Director and screenwriter Samuel Fuller definitely has a knack for punchy dialogue, colorful characters and great atmosphere in a noir and he has all three of those qualities in spades here. Better yet, the patriotic angle of the movie – the came during the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism era of the Cold War during the decade – is done tastefully without resorting to heavy handed preaching. However, that all takes a back seat to the raw energy radiating from the combined efforts of cast and crew working at the top of their game here. In short, Pickup on South Street isn’t just a relic of an era, it’s also a quintessential noir of the 1950’s from a passionate and maverick director.
In one of his finest roles, Richard Widmark exudes devil-may-care charm and audacity as the small time hood who inadvertently stumbles on something bigger than him; it represented a change in pace from the usually heavy roles that propelled him to stardom, like his Oscar nominated debut in Kiss of Death (1947). Jean Peters brings the glamour to the part of Candy, a woman who’s basically more of a dupe than anything else, but ends up falling for Skip; after this notable role, she would make a handful more movies before retiring after her marriage to Howard Hughes. Adding another to her roster of memorable scene stealing performances, Thelma Ritter is a delight as professional stoolie Moe; she would be honored with her 4th Oscar nomination (and the film’s lone nod overall). Rounding out the cast here are Murvyn Vye as the boisterous Captain Tiger, Willis Bouchey as the government agent Zara, Richard Kiley as the Commie spy Joey, Milburn Stone as Detective Winoki, Parley Baer as his superior, Vic Perry as Lightning Louie, and character actor George E. Stone as the desk clerk Willie; keep an eye out for Alan Reed (alias Fred Flintstone) as a detective.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:33:1 aspect ratio, taken from a brand new 4K digital restoration. Film grain is faithfully represented, along with fine details, gray scale and shadow details; there’s little to no problems like scratches, reel change markers, dirt or tears present here. This is by far the best the movie will ever look on home video and easily bests Criterion’s previous DVD incarnation of the movie.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a PCM track for this release. Dialogue, sound mix and Leigh Harline’s score are all given strong, clear and faithful representations; there’s very little in terms of distortion, crackling or hissing present here. This release surpasses the previous Criterion DVD and represents the best the movie will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Fierce Independents: Imogen Sara Smith on Pickup on South Street (35:48) – This new interview with Smith has her going over the film’s production while singling out praise for the performances of Richard Widmark, Jean Peters and Thelma Ritter.
1989 interview with director Samuel Fuller (19:06) – This interview with critic Richard Schickel has Fuller recalling making the movie as well as his working relationship with 20th Century Fox head of production Darryl F. Zanuck.
Cinéma cinémas: Fuller (11:05) – This vintage 1982 short film for the French TV program has Samuel Fuller revisiting the opening scenes of the movie; presented in both French and English languages with French subtitles.
1954 Hollywood Radio Theater adaptation (52:20) – Thelma Ritter reprises her role as Moe, while Terry Moore and Stephen McNally portray – respectively – Candy and Skip in this vintage radio show; there are occasional dropouts in the audio, so be forewarned.
Theatrical Trailer (1:48)
Bonus Samuel Fuller Trailers – Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, Hell and High Water, House of Bamboo, China Gate, Run of the Arrow, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, Underworld U.S.A., Merrill’s Marauders, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, The Big Red One, White Dog
Booklet feat. a 2004 essay by author/critic Luc Sante, a foreword from Samuel Fuller’s posthumous 2002 autobiography by Martin Scorsese and a chapter from the autobiography on the film
Not carried over from the previous Criterion DVD is an onscreen biography of Fuller, a poster filmography of his work and a still gallery of publicity stills.
Despite a mixed reception from critics and audiences, Pickup on South Street has gone on to become a classic of 1950’s film noir and a feather in the cap of the career of Samuel Fuller. Criterion has done the movie justice with a terrific HD transfer and the usual solid slate of special features to complement and delve deep into the movie. Very highly recommended and easily worth upgrading from the previous DVD release.
Amazon.com: Pickup on South Street (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, George Berkeley, Victor Perry, Frank Kumagai, Willis B. Bouchey, Milburn Stone, Henry Slate, Jerry O’Sullivan, Harry Carter, George E. Stone, George Eldredge, Stuart Randall, Maurice Samuels, Parley Baer, Virginia Carroll, Roger Moore, Clancy Cooper, John Gallaudet, Wilson Wood, Ray Montgomery, Ray Stevens, Ralph Moody, Emmett Lynn, Samuel Fuller, Lew Rywin, Jules Schermer, Hanno Huth, Günter Rohrbach: Movies & TV
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