Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pickup on South Street

One of the greatest joys of Samuel Fuller’s films—and incidentally, also for many people one of the greatest challenges in enjoying his work—is the combination of absurd B-movie conventions with the moral conviction the man brings to the telling of his sensational tales. The resulting films are exciting and often eccentric, but also strangely moving because of the sincere passions and honest ideals running through them.

However, there’s certainly no difficulty in enjoying Fuller’s dynamic style, even if you choose to dismiss the content of his films as pulp-movie nonsense. I once tried to initiate a friend into Fuller’s mad oeuvre with Shock Corridor, a feverish tale of a reporter trying to solve a murder in an insane asylum by pretending he is guilty of incest so that he can be committed (supporting characters include a black man who thinks he founded the KKK and tries to incite the other inmates to lynch mob violence). And yet, for all the lurid and sometimes flat-out silly turns of the story, it is still photographed by the great Stanley Cortez, surely one of the greatest black-and-white cinematographers to ever work in Hollywood. Even at its most flagrantly bizarre, it is still a work of incredible visual power. After watching it, my friend, seeming a bit stunned by my enthusiasm for the film, dismissed it as a case of “style over content.”

I can’t really blame him, even though I think he missed the point. It’s easy to fixate on the rough beauty of Fuller’s films and assume that’s all there is to him. It’s a visceral style—quick camera movements sweeping around the action, odd angles that leave the viewer reeling and create the impression that the whole world is a ship heaved up on the rocks, and sweaty, intense close-ups just to remind you that all of this madness is happening to actual human beings. But Fuller is no formalist in love with his images—if that were the case, you would expect there to be more polish and control in the visuals, which is certainly not the case. In fact, as he bragged in an old interview included on the Criterion DVD version of Pickup on South Street, a shot early in the film was even done blind. The cameraman couldn’t fit behind the camera because a wall was in the way, so the whole shot—a tricky one which involved the camera moving while following characters in the background and foreground—had to be done without anyone looking in the camera to make sure everyone was in the frame (they were). This is not the sort of behaviour you would expect of a director who wants only pretty pictures.

No, Fuller is better seen as a moralist. Critics often make much of his early career in the New York tabloid press, banging out muckraking accounts of murders and suicides beneath screaming headlines, as the root of his sensationalistic and decidedly unsubtle storytelling sense. But Fuller is not cynical or calculated when it comes to his stories. He may be over the top, but usually what sends him over is his sense of moral outrage and that perverse tabloid mentality that demands the truth above all else, even the facts.

And maybe that’s a good thing. If Fuller cared just about the facts of a story like Pickup on South Street, it would be a bore of a movie—just another bit of Red-baiting early 1950s B-movie detritus. The film follows the story of Skip McCoy (wonderfully played by an insolent Richard Widmark with his lip perpetually curled upwards), a thrice-jailed pickpocket who swipes the wallet of a woman on the New York subway and ends up in possession of a microfilm containing government secrets being sold to the Communists. Yes—Communists! Microfilm! Spies! The story is so ridiculous I feel a little embarrassed just writing that brief synopsis.

But Fuller’s instinct, while truly tabloid, elevates the story into something affecting—I picture him sitting at a typewriter, chomping absent-mindedly on his cigar, asking himself, Okay, Communists, spies, all that jazz, fine, but what’s the human angle? With that question, he begins sweeping aside the Cold War and abstractions like patriotism as inconvenient nonsense in the way of a good story. One of the key lines in the film (and one that raised the ire of J. Edgar Hoover himself, who personally complained to Fuller about it) comes when the police and Feds try to pressure Skip into admitting he has the microfilm by suggesting it would be treasonous to do anything other than give it to them. With a sneer on his face, Skip spits back at the authorities, “Are you waving the flag at me?” He is beneath politics, so far down society’s ladder that the Cold War is as distant from his life as Russia itself.

He is joined down there in the gutter by several others who share his disinterest in the intricacies of global politics. There is Candy (Jean Peters in a performance that alternately threatens to burst out of her sweater or simply shatter glass), the woman on the subway from whom he steals the film. She seems to live by a thread and subsists on money earned by doing jobs for Joey, an ex-lover who, to her chagrin, turns out to be working for the Communists. And nearest to the heart of the film is Moe (Thelma Ritter), a professional stool pigeon who sells ties on the street and information in the police stations. Together, these characters suggest a discarded world that is aware of its own expendability, all sustained by a moral code that compensates for the indifference of the rest of society towards them.

This code boils down to one simple phrase: “We all gotta eat somehow.” They don’t judge each other’s livelihoods and all they expect in return is not to be judged as well. Moe, in particular, carries the burden of this philosophy. She sells out Skip twice in the film (first to the police, and then to Candy when the woman comes looking for the missing microfilm), but he shrugs it off. She has to earn a living somehow, right? And as she points out when she haggles with the police over the price of her information, the cost of living is going up.

Although it should be noted what is really on her mind is the cost of death, or more precisely, the cost of a cemetery plot and tombstone. With the stubborn pride of the terminally poor, she is determined to buy herself into a nice grave in order to defy the circumstances of her life and prove she was as good as the rich people all along. She knows she can’t afford to live the good life, but she hopes she can at least afford to die the good death. As a depiction of the grind of poverty and old age, there is nothing quite so moving as Moe’s weary, glassy-eyed expression as she stares at her own approaching death and sighs, “I have to go out and make a livin’ so I can die.”

That’s the trick with Fuller. Whenever we approach a B movie, there’s a tendency to feel superior to it. The characters are expected to be flat cartoons, the plot ludicrous, the acting hammy or awkward. We don’t expect there to be anything redeeming about it but superficial qualities—it can be stylish in its own crude way, or amusing in its embarrassing badness. But it’s not supposed to move us, to do anything that might suggest it actually has something to offer us beyond cheap thrills and smug laughs.

But Fuller’s film do contain moments of such rich pathos as Moe’s death—“Look, mister, I’m so tired, you’ll be doing me a big favor if you blow my head off,” she says to Joey, who obliges without hesitation—and moments of such genuine humanity as when Skip claims Moe’s coffin from a barge carrying it to a pauper’s grave. One of the men on the barge asks Skip if he is her relative. When Skip says he isn’t, the man is confused. What would he want with her then? The pickpocket’s response is terse and determined: “I’m going to bury her.”

The turning point of the film comes when Skip realizes that Moe and Candy both stood up for him—that two people actually do give a damn about him. Both women refuse to give up his location to Joey. Moe dies for her troubles and Candy is shot and beaten (which sounds potentially fatal, but Candy spends so much time in this film getting slapped around that it seems to have toughened her up—she’s on her feet by the end of the movie). Patriotism may have failed to move him, but personal loyalty does the trick.

More than just demands for empathy and equality in the world, Fuller’s films also test these values in the audience by forcing us to look past surface impressions to the genuine qualities of the work itself. There are undoubtedly flaws in this film, ranging from the tone-deaf performance of Jean Peters as Candy to the various holes that make the plot seem like a well-worn rag at times (for instance, if Skip’s shack is under police surveillance for most of the film, how can so much shady and downright criminal activity occur there without any police response? Are we to assume they just fell asleep?).

But when Fuller is in peak form, as he is in Pickup on South Street, such concerns become irrelevant; you can just lose yourself in the exhilarating energy of the film, where each frame is propelled by a sense of conviction and purpose and lands like a punch to the gut. Consider this 80 minutes of raw emotion sublimated into images.

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