Sunday, February 28, 2016
Pick-up on South Street
Like terrorism today, the Red Scare of the early fifties was sufficiently vivid to movie audiences in that time to be a credible threat suitable for driving suspense plots. Critics generally ignore the fact that North by Northwest is driven by a cabal of subversives whose patrician demeanor and good manners mirrors Alger Hiss. (At one point in the film, someone identifies the MacGuffin, that is, the object of the quest powering the plot, as a "pumpkin" -- referring, I think, to an allegation in the Hiss case that microfilm was concealed in a hollow gourd.) Samuel Fuller's Pick-up on South Street (1953) is a raw, tabloid-style riff on similar paranoid themes -- a cabal of subversives is smuggling microfilm using a damaged good-time gal as their mule. The girl has her purse picked in the subway by a "cannon" -- that is, a professional pickpocket -- played by Richard Widmark. In this way, the pickpocket unwittingly comes into possession of five frames of microfilm, enigmatic equations and arrays of numbers, posited to have vast strategic value. Widmark's petty criminal tries to leverage his possession of the microfilm to his advantage, pitting the cops against the subversives. The plot is a variant on Hitchcock's favorite narrative device -- the double chase: the bad guys are chasing a good guy who is also on the run from the police. The story is conventional, but Fuller amps everything to near-hysteria with his nervous, hyper-expressive camera-style -- he dollies the camera so fast and so furiously that on several occasions I expected the actors to flinch at the caroming camera: you have expect the snout of the camera to smash into someone's face. (Sometimes, Fuller moves the camera so quickly that he loses focus momentarily.) The movie is shot in big close-ups with people sneering or leering at one another and everyone speaks in criminal argot that has a rude sort of demotic poetry. Fuller is nothing if not audacious -- when Widmark rummages around in the heroine's purse, she gazes dreamily into his eyes with a kind of vacant sexual excitement: the fetishized purse is a major feature of the film -- it gets groped and battered and thrown around, obviously symbolizing the demi-monde heroine's abused sexuality. (The actress looks like a bruised, bargain basement Ava Gardner -- she wears the same revealing outfit throughout the whole film.) The movie has a rancid disreputable tone -- it opens in a subway tunnel and ends with a savage underground fight in the same tunnel; the hero (Widmark) lives literally in extremis -- he occupies a former bait shop precariously perched on rotting stilts in the Hudson, a shack reached by walking from the pier over two conspicuously unstable planks. Everything takes place in a kind of raunchy, ruinous, and poverty-stricken netherworld -- at one point, the pickpocket negotiates for a corpse on a little barge full of unmarked and water-sodden caskets; the scene seems to take place on River Styx itself. Fights occur in subway toilets and filthy basements. Fuller stages the brutality without cutting, people throwing one another around squalid rooms in action sequences staged to seem simultaneously horrific and comical; he fast-cranks to make the wrestling and punches move with Keystone Kops velocity. A number of these set pieces are memorable: a bad guy crouches in a dumb-waiter while cops above and below him wave guns and hunt for the fugitive, the good-time girl is savagely beaten and basically thrown through a wall, combatants stagger around in the luridly lit bowels of the subway as trains roar past. The most famous scene in the movie is the murder of Thelma Ritter, the actress playing a bizarre kind of informant -- she sells ties from a battered brief-case that she carries, raising money, she says, for her funeral and cemetery plot. The scene in which the exhausted Ritter, too tired to maintain the Darwinian struggle for existence, encourages a villain to shoot her is poignant and both brilliantly written and staged -- her resignation and exhaustion are so palpable that is almost a relief when the gunman blows off her head. Clocking in at one hour and 20 minutes, Fuller's nervous and edgy kind of filmmaking works most effectively in short, adrenalin-fueled bursts -- some scenes lag inexplicably and Fuller doesn't care much for exposition. Less than 90 minutes, the film still seems too long -- this is because Fuller's interest isn't in the plot, or, even, the characters, most of whom are Damon Runyon-style thugs; he cares about the bravura use of locations, the intense chiaroscuro of the black and white lighting, and the ferocity of the fight scenes. Everything else has a provisional feeling -- it's there, but not really there.