Crime Scene is a monthly Vague Visages column about the relationship between crime cinema and movie locations. This Pickup on South Street essay contains spoilers. Samuel Fuller’s 1953 film features Richard Widmark, Jean Peters and Thelma Ritter. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
The emergence of film noir as a genre in the 1940s was deeply rooted in a particularly urban geographic space. The American city rapidly expanded from the late 19th century onwards, with the northeastern states urbanizing quickest during the Industrial Revolution. By the 1910s, more than 50 percentof the country lived in urban areas, while the rise of automobiles gave birth to affluent suburban areas. Film noir latched onto this rapid shift, with urban decay being a source of constant anxiety in the genre: geographical space itself is often a villain.
Noirs were set all over the USA (and beyond). But if you were to ask this writer, most fall into one of three places, and thus three types of film noir: Los Angeles, New York and rural. For the sake of this essay, I’ll ignore the rural noir for now, such as Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1948) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945). My focus is on the difference between LA and NY noirs, and how the the twin centers of American film and TV production are imagined in the cinema.
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LA noirs — such as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Howard Hawks’The Big Sleep (1946) and modern descendants like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) — are sun-blasted and hot. The houses are larger, often out in the endless suburbia of LA. The city’s endless urban sprawl, designed around the personal automobile (private, individual, secretive), allows one to pass anonymously between large sections of the city. This sprawl and space becomes part of LA crime stories: beneath everybody’s relaxed, ocean-kissed smiles lies a plethora of corruption and malice. LA noirs hide their decay and malice beneath seemingly idyllic surfaces.
In NY noir — Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) — the corruption and stink is visible from the start. In a city of high-rise skyscrapers, the primary mode of transport is the subway or the bus. Sometimes, it’s the cab (cramped, public, anxious). The city is forever closing in, growing higher and smokier. If everybody hides away in an LA noir, a NY noir rarely has time for somebody to clean up their act. Everybody is dirty, all the time.
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Pickup on South Street is perhaps the quintessential New York noir. Samuel Fuller’s 1953 film, with its sharp, jagged close-ups, claustrophobic air and rogues gallery of tricksters, con men and thugs, forever on both sides of the law, makes the physical space of New York key to its purpose. Vulture even labeled Pickup on South Street as “the best NYC-centric opening sequence in film history.” And yet not a single frame of the film was shot in New York.
Studio sets and the pointedly chosen locations instead double up for New York. The opening scene is set on the subway (built in a studio). A masterful and wordless sequence of filmmaking, it sets up the entire universe of Pickup on South Street and its network of relationships with rapid, quickfire economy. Fuller doesn’t reveal character names as Candy (Jean Peters) wanders onto a train carriage. Shots cut back and forth while two men pay close attention to the female protagonist. Skip (Richard Widmark) slides in, paying disinterested attention to his surroundings. As Fuller cuts to an insert, the man quietly places his hands into Candy’s purse — an invasive and sexual undertone to the act. And just like that, Pickup on South Street’s plot is set in motion: Skip unwittingly pickpockets government secrets on microfilm and gets bound to shadowy Communist figures. Thus, he finds himself caught between two superpowers — the USSR and the USA — and must play both sides.
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It’s a sweaty, claustrophobic scene, with characters pushed towards each other but barely aware of their existence. In an interview with French TV in the 70s, Fuller said that “people are never as far away from each other as when they are stood next to each other in the subway,” exemplified by the fact that Skip holds a newspaper direct in Candy’s face before the lifting the microfilm.
Pickup on South Street is rooted in Fuller’s days as a journalist, full of the terse, stylized slang he used to color his tabloid-style reporting (the list of Hollywood’s greatest wordsmiths who started out as journalists is long). The pickpockets are referred to as “cannons,” and Skip is picked up by the police because a “stoolie” (professional informer) named Moe (Thelma Ritter) sells him out to the police for $50. But Pickup on South Street keys into a wider underworld; a vast, often anonymous network of low-level criminals, many of whom Fuller evidently feels empathy for. When Skip finds out that Moe sold him out, he’s not angry (“she’s gotta eat too”).
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These networks constantly bump into each other during Pickup on South Street. The concept of a pickpocket simply doesn’t work in LA, a city with precious few of those sweaty communal spaces one needs to work anonymously. Avoiding violence and sleight of hand, the pickpocket is in many ways a gentleman thief, though Skip is no gentleman. Widmark plays him with a suppressed rage and ugliness. He’s just out of prison for the third time and know that one more conviction will result in a life sentence. Meaning, every action could be his last as a free man.
Opening on the subway allows Fuller much leeway in terms of Pickup on South Street’s idea of New York. By opening with a quintessential image of Big Apple life, he’s able to get away with a lack of authentic geographical depictions, and every suggestion is brilliantly economical. Just a few location elements are enough to build up a convincing vision of New York. The few location shots of LA primarily utilize buildings with Roman column-style facades, common throughout Manhattan, a city obsessed with its own grandeur and creating a history of itself through a mimetic relationship to Antique European history, a grandeur that plays directly against the low-down origins of the main characters.
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Pickup on South Street mostly takes place in the waterfront shack that Skip lives in, a rickety construct seemingly half afloat, ready to cave in on itself. There are no prettified Spanish-style houses a la Double Indemnity — this place is decrepit, with Skip using the river as a fridge. It’s a perfect marriage of character and space: out of sight and out of mind, seemingly inconsequential, as a pickpocket prefers to be, but overlooking Manhattan (via rear-projection of course), where Skip can keep an eye on the city’s financial center and plan for a good haul.
The waterfront is a place where things are ever-changing. Regeneration and gentrification projects love waterfronts but leave them to their own devices. Nature often takes its course by eroding away at the banks, tides and currents. Being on the waterfront requires being present in the now, in whatever is happening at this very moment. Skip’s only concerns are his next meal and staying out of trouble. Arrive at the waterfront in an LA noir and you’ll find mostly just the rich, enjoying the luxury of the beach.
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That ever-presentness meets a dark flipside in Moe, whose primary goal in her older middle age is to save up enough for a plot of land on Long Island where she can be buried. Her work is prefaced on the selling of knowledge, an information store of how others live. Yet Mo is motivated by the fear of anonymity upon her death. In Pickup on South Street, the city both anonymizes and dehumanizes its citizens, with privacy being a privilege for the wealthy only.
It’s within this psycho-geographic space that Skip finds himself caught between the two states that represent the major dominant ideologies of the post-war world: communism and capitalism. Pickup on South Street is a Hollywood movie made in 1953, the McCarthy era in full swing, and yet Skip is no flag-waver, and neither does the US state come off as squeaky clean. These are two sides motivated purely by ideology, which makes them far more dangerous and corrupt than a humble pickpocket. The US state is personified by its security organs: the NY and Federal police come after Skip, while the Commies are personified by a shifty network of informants and suits, mostly the always-sweating Joey (Richard Kiley), but also by a group of actors mostly cast for their stubborn, looming faces. Crucially, what the Communists actually represent is left off the table in Pickup on South Street. Characters know they’re supposed to hate them, but nobody can say why. When they’re approached by American police, they’re hardly intrinsic allies either.
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Skip responds to this dichotomy in Pickup on South Street with acts of pure self-preservation. He’s got no personal hand in the continuing proliferation of capitalism, nor does he care. But Skip does respond to the situation he’s placed in. To this point, his whole life has been shaped by forces outside of his control, much like the river that runs beneath his shack. With no guarantees of anything, Skip must think only of himself, constantly playing each dialogue as a poker game, withholding intentions and info until the last possible moment.
Many NY noirs before and after Pickup on South Street would portray the city as a shadowy entity of criminals, skittering away into the subterranean subways and sewers beneath the city (perhaps emboldened by a certain tabloid vision of the city as the most dangerous place in America). But few were as prescient or as clear-eyed about how this criminality functioned in tandem with the city’s geographic state, a constant ever-shifting landscape, claustrophobic and public, too fast-paced to consider ideologies, politics or the consequences of today’s actions. This anxiety and upfront corruption doesn’t work so coherently on film transplanted to LA, with its vast spaces and privacy. That, of course, doesn’t mean urban anxiety and corruption aren’t present in LA noir, but there remains something specifically and inherently New York about Fuller’s masterful Pickup on South Street, which once again makes it all the more remarkable that the entire film was shot on the west coast.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.
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