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Sam Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET

September 4, 2010

Martin Scorsese says of Sam Fuller: Sam’s movies are blunt, pulpy, occasionally crude, lacking any sense of delicacy or subtlety. But those aren’t shortcomings. They’re simply reflections of his temperament, his journalistic training, and his sense of urgency.

Urgency is a good word to describe Fuller’s 1953 film “Pickup on South Street”. Right from the very beginning–the music playing over the opening credits is frenetic, brash, martial, Oriental-ish and very, very Hollywood. It demands that you pay attention–and you better because you’re going to be thrown right into the middle of the action after the subway train zooms by on the screen. In less than three minutes the event that triggers all the other actions, in a movie filled with action, happens. In the fourth minute you feel the exasperation, fear and panic as the camera nestles right up on Jean Peters’s face. Her facial expressions in that moment are worth the price of admission. But, of course, there is no cost for admission these days. Criterion has done a great transfer of the film to DVD along with many significant bonus features including two segments with Sam. You can also find it, in many parts, on YouTube. Back to facial expressions for a moment though. One of the reasons why there is such a sense of urgency to the film are the close-ups. There is one scene in the film where Richard Kiley, the Commie spy of the piece, realizes he’s in deep trouble and the camera is close enough for you to smell his fear. Great stuff. Raw filmmaking.

Besides Peters and Kiley, Thelma Ritter plays Moe Williams, the stooly. She’s so good she was nominated for an Academy Award. Her last scene is a classic in fear then resignation to one’s fate. Finally there’s the “Leading Man” of the movie–Richard Widmark. How good was he? I’m going to have to go back and watch his films from that era. He was so good in this (they all were) that I think he must have been one of those under-appreciated stars of the Hollywood Studio System…at least I know I’ve not given him his due in the past.

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