Pickup on South Street (1953) 1:20
dir. by Samuel Fuller
starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Richard Kiley
Fast, raw and brutal. Oh, I do love Sam Fuller. He sure does have movie violence down pat. The fistfight at the end, in the train station, is as gritty as any I've seen from this period or before. The villain has hurt Widmark's friends and he's going to make him pay. He really beats the hell out of him, too. By the end of the fight, Kiley's nothing more than a pile of whimpering jelly.
And the scene where Kiley tries to beat Widmark's address out of a reticent Jean Peters, the violence there is doubly shocking because the object of the onscreen beating is a woman. She really gets the hell kicked out of her. He cracks her across the jaw, tosses her into a table, knocking it over, slams her against a bookcase and, finally, when she tries to make a getaway, he plugs her. And for a few minutes you wonder, 'Well, if Fuller's willing to show her getting knocked around so bad, is he willing to let his protagonist's love interest simply and abruptly die right there?'
As it turns out, he isn't. She lives, but only makes it out of the hospital for the last scene, taking place, presumably, weeks after the previous scene (the subway station, fisticuffs).
Tame, of course, by today's blood-choked standards, but still, even today, totally effective and chilling and stunning.
Then there is also Fuller's own brutality as a moviemaker. I think there's probably two long-shots in the entire movie. Everything else, close-ups and medium shots and snappy, unflashy editing. There really isn't a let-up in pace or tone for the entire movie really. He just hammers you and hammers again, relentlessly.
I've never really been crazy about Richard Widmark as an actor. He's a little too tight, too affected. Don't get me wrong, I certainly liked him here more than I have in other movies, but still... I suppose he fits well with Fuller's punishing style.
The actress who played Mo, the stoolie (Thelma Ritter), was really great. She really lit up every scene she was in. Particularly the ones with cops and G-men.
It's exhilarating, the way Fuller goes for the guts in every scene. Not like Hawks, who asked his actors for two or three good scenes in a movie and then wanted them to take it easy the rest of the picture, not wanting any histrionics or overacting. Nope. Not Fuller. He pounds it to you from the first scene, bracketed by two dark shots of a subway train shooting by, where it's: a girl is being followed, someone else picks her purse and lifts her wallet. From that, we thunder through the next few scenes, becoming more and more thunderous towards the end.
Andrew Sarris calls Fuller a 'primitive', a label I've never particularly liked. It makes him sound like a Masai tribesman or a viking or something.
There's one really terrific scene... after Jean Peters has gone to Widmark to try to buy the stolen film back and she's pacing a room where Kiley and two other bigshots of the spy-ring (I suppose...they're never explicitly identified). She's standing, they're sitting. She's relating what Widmark has said: his demand for $25,000, his accusation that she's working for the Commies... and once she mentions commies, you can feel the room's tension increase. Because she's so clueless and the men are so tense. Their agitated, screwed-up faces are all shown in tight close-up. Then Kiley, the middle-man, the guy whose reputation and (it seems) very life are on the line here for botching the job, is shown in a super close-up, sweaty-faced, jittery. Poor fellow, we think, if this doesn't work out, he's had it. I suppose getting his ass kicked by Richard Widmark is a far less severe punishment than his Red overlords would've meted out to him, so he should be grateful for that. Then again, isn't the penalty for espionage generally execution anyway? Oh well.