Pickup on South Street is the most claustrophobic American film before Psycho. Hitchcock’s lament for the aridity of the modern age
focused on “private traps.” Sam Fuller’s 1953 noir, the finest distillation of his tabloid sensibility, is about public traps: the confinement of rigid political identity, the division of society into citizens and criminals, the solely economic line that separates pauperhood from respectability. The macguffin here is a piece of microfilm that, in the opening scene, is being ferried to communist agents by the unwitting courier Candy (Jean Peters) but gets stolen en route by the pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). The picture is a race to convince Skip to turn over the film and forgo the big score he expects from selling it.
But the whole plot is a macguffin. Fuller, the democratic integrationist deeply suspicious of all forms of tyranny, and of a patriotism that’s mere puffery, cares less about his picture’s ostensible Cold War politics (stupidly condemned by both left-wing critics and J. Edgar Hoover) than about how Skip and Candy, and Thelma Ritter’s Moe — the aging peddler who makes her real living as a police
informant — have been sealed off by society’s fixed perceptions. Candy, the type of character who used to be called a good-time girl, knows her options are limited and is ripe for the pressure exerted by her ex Joey (a sweating, oleaginous Richard Kiley), the communist agent who uses her to convey the secrets he filches.
Skip, facing life in the pen with three convictions already on his jacket, refuses to believe the promises of exasperated cop Tiger (Murvyn Vye), that he won’t be prosecuted if he just turns over the film. The system has never done Skip a good turn, so he’s in no mood to listen to or trust Tiger’s patriotic exhortations. The only person here who achieves nobility is Moe, also the most poignant because her lowly status hasn’t eclipsed her sense of duty to something bigger than herself. “Even in our crummy line of business, you gotta draw the line somewhere,” she says, and this woman whom the cops treat as an amusing local color is also the only character who instinctively stands up for the principles they are charged with defending.
Shooting on the 20th Century Fox backlot (rather than on location in New York, as he had hoped), Fuller captures the feeling not just of being trapped, but of choosing your trap. Skip lives squirreled in a waterfront shack, impervious to the vista outside. Moe retreats to her dark rented room, its shabbiness given poignancy by the small artifacts, a Victrola and china cups, with which she tries to impart some grace. The cruelest trap is Candy’s apartment. When Joey turns on her, Fuller and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald abandon their prominent use of close-ups and pull the camera back to a wide-angle view and the exact parameters of the space in which she’s cornered. The square and crowded frame teems with angles, corners, shadows, cubbyholes. In their final confrontation, Skip and Joey slug it out on the subway tracks, two rats squabbling for the upper hand. In their clinches, Widmark and Peters are given the tight, slightly blurred close-ups George Stevens afforded Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, but we’re always aware of how each is working the other. And in their first encounter, on the hot crowded subway train where Skip rifles her purse, the claustrophobia has a steamy wit, with editor Nick DiMaggio cutting between Skip delicately fingering the clasp of Candy’s handbag and an unaware Candy biting her lip as if in erotic anticipation.
As good as are Widmark, with his proto-Method grin, and Peters, with her tawny, untutored naturalism, this is Thelma Ritter’s movie. She transforms what could have been no more than a
colorful eccentric to a figure of unshakable dignity. The dream Moe works toward, a grave on Long Island rather than in a potter’s field, is the movie’s ultimate expression of confinement: deliverance as the respectability a better neighborhood affords. Moe describes herself as an old clock winding down, and watching Ritter, you feel as if you can see every step, every breath leeching the life out of her. Her exit, in which Fuller discreetly and devastatingly allows his camera to drift to Moe’s bedside Victrola and the needle going off the 78, recalls Truffaut’s words about the famous bowling alley shooting in Scarface: “This isn’t literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema.”