The early ’50s, Richard Widmark, and New York City–must be film noir time. True to his reputation, Widmark plays a small-time hood, Skip, who gets in over his head, not with ordinary gangsters, but with Communist spies. Jean Peters’s Candy is Skip’s mark, Moe (Thelma Ritter) is a police informer, ‘Lightning Louie’ (Vic Perry) is a useful hood, Zara (Willis Bouchey) is an FBI agent, and there’s cops Capt. Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) and Detectives Winocki and Dietrich (Milburn Stone and Harry Carter). Joey (Richard Kiley) and Parley Baer are the no-good Communists.
The first scene sets the stage well: everyone’s jammed into each other in a subway train–typical noir claustrophobia–while the FBI agents watch Candy, as does Skip. We know soon enough that the Commies are getting our Government secrets, thanks to Candy, and that Skip jammed up the works. Moe is called on by Tiger and Zara to help find the missing link–Skip. She fingers him all right; for the right price–and “a side bet”–his whereabouts.
Man, what a dingy hideout he’s got. Literally, a dockside shack. He discovers the micro-film just as the detectives show up, and bring him in. Tiger let’s him know how things will work: “I’ll drive you back in a hearse, if you don’t lose the kink in your mouth!” They give him “the patriotic eyewash,” but he ain’t copping to the microfilm deal. Must be playing an angle, as they say.
Yep. He goes to the library to read the film. Viola! Indeed it’s scientific mumbo-jumbo. Meanwhile, Candy goes to another informer (Lightning Louie) to find Moe. She’s prowling in his shack as Skip returns; her wake-up call is kind of brutal. “I want my wallet” she tells him. He gives her the purse but hangs onto the film. “You got me in an awful mess” she says, but then lies about the film. It’s hard to tell at first if he’s just messing with her, but soon it’s clear that he likes her. Still, he doesn’t let on anything, and kicks her out.
Tiger shows up, offering Skip “a clean slate” in return for the film. Candy goes back to Joey, empty-handed. She thinks Skip will respond to blackmail; but he thinks Skip is up to something else. Hedging his bets, he gives her $500 to parley with. A quick visit down to the shack makes for a funny conversation; now they really like each other, but there’s not much trust yet. “You’re not going to raise the ante by messing up my lipstick.”
“You tell that Commie I want a big score for that film!” It’s pretty amazing that she doesn’t yet know who she’s working for; maybe not too surprising, though, we could imagine that she’s learned not to ask questions. The Commies huddle up, there’s a timeline on ‘delivery.’ Joey wants to kill Skip for the film. Now Candy’s in a real bind; wisely, she goes to Moe, who’s outraged that Commies are behind it all.
“That muffin you grifted, she’s ok” she tells Skip. Now Moe gets the focus. Joey has let himself into her dingy hotel room, and offers her $500 to give up Skip. She’s not exactly cooperative “What do I know about Commies? Nothing!…I just don’t like ’em” He realizes she won’t give, and shoots her. The cops come after Skip, but an FBI guy vouches for him, and they leave. Next day, Candy’s in his place (everyone lets themselves in here). She confesses that she set Joey into Moe’s trail.
He’s hoping for a $25,000 payoff. She realizes he’s probably going to kill Joey if he doesn’t get the dough. So she knocks him out with a bottle, and takes the film to the cops. She pretty much comes clean about Joey, but not about Skip. So, we’re set for a ‘delivery’ denouement. The cops want her to go through with the deal so they can nab the Commies. It seems though, that there’s a frame missing from the film; probably Skip’s precaution. Joey can’t get Skip’s address–he shoots her. The trash bin proves the perfect noir escape route (essentially a hand-drawn mini-elevator).
From the hospital, she warns Skip that Joey’s onto him. He waits down near the water while Joey and his cohort look for him in vain. Returning to the subway, you can feel that Skip going to lift something again. This time it’s Joey’s gun. So, Skip ambushes them in the subway men’s room. Great fight scene: nothing like getting jammed into a nook by the subway tracks and then getting hammered by Widmark. It’s all good, as Skip and Candy waltz out of the police station, perfectly happy, while Tiger shakes his head.
This was outstanding in every way. The plot makes plenty of sense, the pacing’s relentless, great atmosphere (everything and every place is gritty as coarse sandpaper), and fine performances. What really sells Pickup On South Street is that the Candy/Skip romance works. It’s certainly awkward, but their instant attraction is very believable. It takes the whole movie for their relationship to gather momentum, as neither of them is wired up to trust, let alone love anyone. The romance resonates because these two characters drive the plot. Anything that one does affects the other.
Moe’s character is great too. She literally stands in the middle of all the main characters; neither as nonchalant as Skip or as harried as Candy, she’s resigned to her small corner of the world. But she bitterly defends what and who she is “my back aches, my head aches…but I have to go on makin’ a living, so I can die.” It’s very noir fatalistic, yet there’s a lot of dignity in that statement too.
Farmermouse liked that teeny-weeny shack on the waterfront, so he gives this ten hidden crates of beer. 10/10.