Pickup On South Street (DVD)

Pickup On South Street (DVD)

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Pickup On South Street (DVD)

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It's been said that if you don't like The Rolling Stones, then you don't like rock 'n' roll," Martin Scorsese says in his introduction to director Sam Fuller's indispensable memoir A Third Face. "By the same token, I think that if you don't like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don't like cinema." Strong words, but if ever there was cause to draw such a line in the sand, it's over Fuller, who understood better than anyone the elemental power of the camera and the value of lean, economical storytelling. Some of Fuller's films may be more personal and idiosyncratic than 1953's Pickup On South Street, but none have better exemplified his no-nonsense journalistic ethos. A diamond-cut crime drama at 80 minutes, Pickup doesn't waste a second in moving the story forward, but it's also flecked with incidental details, from the "trademark" techniques of a New York City pickpocket to the way a crook named "Lightning" Louie snaps up his bribe money. For a film in which the heroes are all petty criminals, Fuller cast the wonderfully oily Richard Widmark—an actor best known for pushing a wheelchair-bound old lady down a flight of stairs in 1947's Kiss Of Death—as a pickpocket with an innate sense of decency. A three-time loser, Widmark risks being sent away for good when he targets femme fatale Jean Peters on a train and lifts a pocketbook containing stolen U.S. microfilm en route to the Communists. Not swayed by appeals to his patriotism, Widmark plays the authorities and the Reds against each other to get a huge payoff, but his riverside hideout is blown by professional stoolie Thelma Ritter, who also sells her services to the highest bidder. Widmark's nonchalant reaction to Ritter's betrayal is key to what makes the film's honor-among-thieves theme so resonant, because Fuller upends what generally passes for morality, onscreen and off. Fuller's sympathy with a stool pigeon, presented during the blacklist era, takes guts, as does his defiantly apolitical view of Communism, but his shadow world of petty criminality has its own priorities and codes. In a lively 10-minute interview included on the DVD edition of Pickup, which also features a terrific French TV segment where Fuller examines the first reel on a flatbed, the filmmaker explains that a pickpocket is more of an artist than a criminal, because he doesn't assault people for his trade. Then again, by those standards, Fuller was as much of a criminal as he was an artist, because his brand of cinema always used its bare fists.

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