|It seems entirely appropriate that all the
reviews I've read on various and sundry dvd review sites(my particular
favorite being Glenn Erickson's astute and witty review on the DVD
SAVANT site) of Criterion's sterling dvd release of PICKUP ON SOUTH
STREET have focused primarily on Samuel Fuller, PICKUP'S flamboyant
director. For from the very first frame of this uniquely harsh and raw
film noir it becomes immediately apparent that, while PICKUP sounds like
a 50's 20th Century Fox film, and utilizes three Fox contract stars in
the leads, it looks and plays like nothing Fox had released up to that
time, thanks to Fuller's jagged and rough-and-tumble approach to the
patently ridiculous storyline: a previously unpatriotic three-time loser
professional pickpocket (Richard Widmark) is transformed into an avid
anticommunist when his crooked girlfriend (Jean Peters), who he
previously treated like a human punching bag, is even more brutally
beaten up by a commie-pinko sleazebag (Richard Kiley) trying to smuggle
U.S. Government secrets to those damn dirty Russkies------ yeah, right!
There's no question, though, that Fuller's intense style, punctuated
with effectively and frequently utilized close-ups, transforms the
tawdry into the top-notch.
But I submit that PICKUP'S four leading players are as responsible for its success as Fuller is, and, in fact, have been given comparatively short shrift by its admirers. Widmark's revelation, in the dvd's text interview with him, that Fuller never rehearsed him or discussed "motivation" with him, makes his multifaceted, magnetic and electrifying performance as Skip McCoy all the more amazing. For me, this is quintessential Widmark, the one role for which he is completely irreplaceable, and the kind of role that, had he continued in that vein, could have propelled him into the rarified Cagney type of super-stardom. (Widmark, alas, preferred to play heroic roles in countless lesser projects such as PRIZE OF GOLD , BACKLASH, and THE TRAP, as well as allowing himself to be disastrously miscast in two Metro-Goldwyn-Mega-flops , THE COBWEB and THE TUNNEL OF LOVE. By the time he belatedly returned to the sinister type of role that had made him a star, in John Sturges' THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (opposite the underrated Robert Taylor) and the compelling THE BEDFORD INCIDENT, mainstream audiences had largely abandoned him.)
As for Jean Peters' work here as the hapless and hopeless (despite the rather unbelievably conventional happy ending) human punching bag, it is hands-down the very best performance of a career marked by a few highs (VIVA ZAPATA) and many more forgettable films, all but one (APACHE) which were done at Fox.
Kiley's slimy, sweaty performance here seems all the more remarkable when contrasted with his later intensely sympathetic performances in THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and , especially, Phil Karlson's scathingly brilliant THE PHENIX CITY STORY.
The only PICKUP performer about whom I have trouble labeling this as her best performance is Thelma Ritter, who plays the tragic Moe, the elderly and tired informer trying to amass enough money for a decent burial, a role which justifiably got her an Academy Award nomination. (She should have won!) The reason I hesitate to call this her best work is that everything this great actress (possibly cinema's greatest character actress since Marie Dressler) ever did was her best work.
Criterion has come up with a luminous black-and-white full screen transfer here. Picture and sound quality (mono) are impeccable, easily the equal of the best Criterion, or, in fact, Fox Classics has released. I must admit that I've never understood the adulation FullerFanatics profess for some of his later work, such as THE NAKED KISS, FORTY GUNS, SHOCK CORRIDOR, VERBOTEN, UNDERWORLD U.S.A. etc, but PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is another matter entirely, possibly the most supercharged eighty-minute bolt of cinematic energy currently available on d.v.d.