Pickup on South Street (1953)

Starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Richard Kiley, Murvyn Vye, Willis Bouchey, Milburn Stone

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Expectations: High. Sam Fuller. He’s good.


Sam Fuller knew how to shoot a movie. He’s under the radar for a lot of people, which is a shame because his camerawork is undeniably fantastic. In one of the DVD extras Fuller states, “The power of the camera…is exactly like bold-face type. You cannot compete with it.” Sam Fuller is the perfect example of a director that focuses on showing and not telling.

The film opens with Jean Peters on a subway. Quick cuts establish that she is being watched by two men. There is no dialogue. A third man enters the scenario. He is a pickpocket (Richard Widmark). He lifts the wallet from Jean Peters’ purse and exits the subway car. The two men push their way to the door, only to have it close in their faces.

One of the men says, “What happened?”
“I’m not sure yet,” his partner replies.

The viewer isn’t quite sure either. A fantastic opening with very quick editing (to good effect) for the early 1950s. You can watch it on YouTube if you want to get a sense of it for yourself by clicking here.

The greater part of the film involves a couple of different parties all trying to acquire the contents of the wallet stolen from Jean Peters in the opening scene. Unknown to Widmark, it contained something more than just a few paper bills. The plot reminded me of a Hitchcock film in some ways, as it involves a regular guy getting wrapped up in some shady, international intrigue. This film doesn’t globe-trot like Hitchcock usually does though, it stays firmly rooted in New York City. That choice is where the key difference between Fuller and Hitchcock is. The overall story of Pickup on South Street may resemble a Hitchcock-style film, but Fuller stays connected to the streets that his story lives on, resulting in a dirty, violent version of a Hitchcock thriller. The film is a film noir/thriller hybrid and Fuller never lets it get boring.

The camera movements are quick and precise, creating excitement and danger. When confronted with a scene of violence, Fuller keeps the camera firmly focused on the action, hitting you hard in the gut as you watch Jean Peters violently thrown into bookshelves or Richard Kiley’s face being dragged down a half-flight of subway stairs. The subway fight in particular also has many wide shots of the two combatants. These shots allow the viewer to see the impact and the effect of the impact, all in the same shot. There is something about seeing a fight from that kind of distance that lends more credibility to it. It develops a documentary style in those shots and I felt like I was in the subway tunnel, watching two real men fight. The subway scene is also amazing in that it was all a set built for the film because the production could not afford to shut down a working subway for the length of time needed. The set is truly amazing in this regard, you would never know that it is a fake.

Widmark is great as the pickpocket. Jean Peters is also very good, but maybe a bit too melodramatic for my taste. Thelma Ritter, who was nominated for an Oscar for this role, plays the police informant to a tee and is able to get real emotion from a viewer fifty-seven years later. If you haven’t seen anything from Samuel Fuller you are truly missing out. This is one of the best that I’ve seen from him. Excellent.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MBjsjw4Ztg

4 comments to Pickup on South Street (1953)

  • Uncle Jasper

    Very excited when I saw you were posting this. Sam Fuller is among my very favorite directors. I highly reccommend his book “A Third Face”. After reading it, I was floored just how much his years as a soldier and a newspaper reporter had an effect on his directing style and subject matter. He’s one of the best.

  • Phil

    Getting around to reading more of your reviews. Pickup on South Street is definitely one Fullers best films. Interesting comparisons with Hitchcock.

    I love Hitchcock films however my one issue with most his films are the replay value. After you seen his film and the mystery is solved most of his films loses a lot of excitement on 2nd or 3rd viewings.
    Not to compare directors but that is one thing I really enjoy with Fuller’s films; while they can be blunt and in your face in some aspects they also have enough depth where you can digest & enjoy them more upon future viewings.

    • Fuller films definitely work on multiple viewings. There’s usually a lot happening around the edges of the story, complexities that don’t initially reveal themselves. Hitchcock is in a lot of ways more straightforward I think.

      I should re-watch this one at some point. This was the first Fuller review I did for the site, and now I’m a lot deeper into his films so I’d probably get more out of it.

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