Pickup on South Street (1953)

I reviewed Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns a while ago, and I’ve now got my own copy of that (as opposed to the library copy I reviewed) as part of Umbrella’s Fuller four-pack. Tonight’s film was the first film in that set (we’ll encounter the others in due course), and a cracker it is… Revolving as it does around a Communist organisation, or rather the people wittingly (and unwittingly) working for same, Pickup on South Street is a film totally of its time, but nonetheless it seems to posit an interesting relationship between the Reds and the good (?) guys. Communism was a convenient evil for a filmmaker like Fuller making a hothouse pulp thriller, the very embodiment of it for the characters in the film… except, perhaps, for our distinctly anti hero. Richard Widmark’s pickpocket Skip McCoy exudes a positively no-fucks-given cockiness, blasé about the fact that one more conviction could send him to jail for life, and similarly unconcerned about the Reds except insofar as he can make money out of them; when he pockets a woman’s purse that contains film of government secrets to be passed to the Communists, he merely sees them as a target for extortion. As we should know by now, America’s ability to do business with people it’d like us to think were at its ideological polar opposite (and who could be turned into an enemy of humanity when necessary; cf. Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein and that Bin Laden guy) is a notable one, and McCoy illustrates the point: ideology be damned if there’s money to be made (indeed, I don’t think at any point he denounces Communism per se; he goes on his climactic rampage after Red stooge Joey beats up his girlfriend Candy, by this point McCoy’s love interest as well as target of theft, and who Joey used as his unwitting courier. He hunts Joey down because he’s slime, not because he’s a Communist). Of course, making a convicted criminal illustrate the point carefully blunts any subversive potential, and other underworld characters in the film are more scrupulous; Moe the informant won’t sell McCoy to the Communists. Though she will sell him to the police and to Candy when she’s hunting him before any of them know she’s been working for the Communists unawares. It’s a milieu in which few, even the police, can claim real moral superiority over anyone else. Or it could just be a red hot (ho ho!) piece of 1950s Hollywood studio entertainment rather than my scathing indictment of the American capitalist urge. Or something. Terrific whatever it is.

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