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Pickpockets and communist spies collide in this Cold War noir

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies coming to theaters soon, we recommend a few more Cold War spy movies.

Pickup On South Street (1953)

Samuel Fuller’s Pickup On South Street approaches a Cold War spy plot from ground level—and initially, even further below. In the film’s opening scene, wordless for its first two and a half minutes, the camera observes pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lift a wallet from the pocketbook of Candy (Jean Peters) on a crowded subway car. Skip gets away not just from Candy, who doesn’t notice the lift right away, but also the government agents who have been watching her. Her wallet, it turns out, contains valuable microfilm that she’s handing off at the behest of her ex Joey (Richard Kiley), who is, unbeknownst to Candy, a communist spy.


Skip, then, finds himself at the center of a multi-party skirmish over that microfilm, and Fuller cleverly links the sweaty, low-life entanglements of film noir with Cold War paranoia. Candy is a hard-luck noir dame who doesn’t immediately realize she’s in a spy thriller, and Skip becomes, if not exactly an unlikely hero, at least an unusual rooting interest. Smooth-faced, light-haired Widmark is most famous for pushing an old lady down the stairs in Kiss Of Death; here he’s more of a shady wiseass who unwittingly functions as a default (and strikingly unpatriotic) opponent of communist spies.

Many of the movie’s most endearing characters are also its most disreputable: Several sides of the microfilm conflict utilize Moe (Thelma Ritter), a necktie-peddling informant-for-hire who unapologetically contributes to selling out her various associates for a buck. Ritter, who was nominated for an Oscar for the part, also sells the notion that Moe’s associates might not much mind the betrayals. She’s doing what she must to get by and, in one of the movie’s saddest details, to save money for a fancier burial plot.

Fuller juices the movie’s urgency through the near-endless push and pull of the camera, going in close on actors’ faces before backing off again. Even when the camera isn’t moving, it often maintains a sense of motion: For one of the most striking shots in a movie full of them, he places it below a hammock where Skip is swinging, regularly blocking out part of an investigating cop’s face and body. Scorsese and Tarantino have cited Fuller as an influence, and bits and pieces of Pickup turn up elsewhere, intentionally or not; Ritter’s Moe has a single-take monologue about aging, for example, that differs wildly from the famous Dennis Hopper/Christopher Walken scene in True Romance in terms of content, but has a similar effect. Though set in the world of Cold War spies and anti-communist paranoia, much of Pickup On South Street feels pretty modern.

Availability: Pickup On South Street is available on Criterion DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library.

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