Pickup on South Street: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

May 20, 2021 8 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton and Christopher Bligh

Plot: What’s it about?

Director Samuel Fuller had a lot of talent throughout three decades. In the fifties, Fuller was under contract at Darryl Zanuck’s Twentieth Century Fox and devised a story about three characters, three different directions of life and how all three intercede with each other at one point. A pickpocket, a desperate woman and a stool pigeon. This isn’t some story about a family and their pet. It is a tale of give take and receive knowing that at a certain time of the day there is a scheduled Pickup at South Street.

Candy (Jean Arthur) enters a train with some pairs of eyes on her. After a few stops a man (Richard Widmark) starts close eyeing her reading a newspaper. What she doesn’t know is that this man is his hands are reaching in her purse to get what he wants. Little does he realize what he had taken. It wasn’t some ordinary wallet full of cash and stuff. What he had taken was a microfilm that was being transported for Communists. With the microfilm out in the open the Communists bring an agent (Richard Kiley), who happens to be close with Candy, gets to the bottom of the location of the film while the man named Skip checks out what the fuss is all about. Meanwhile, an old tie selling lady named Moe (Thelma Ritter) goes to the cops to get the facts straight and their man fingered.

Sam Fuller does in eighty minutes what many movies can’t do in two hours or longer. He keeps a solid pace, great performances, tense moments and fits in three characters that hold the audience’s interest from the first reel to the climax of the film.

This viewer likes to see an older movie hold just as much interest as a more recent movie and it is very evident in this film. These days, we don’t see many tales about pickpockets but the three characters, one of them being one, are most intriguing that they all have their own angle and all three will do whatever they can to make it to the end.

All the acting in the film is top notch, from Richard Widmark and his artistry as pickpocket Skip McCoy to Jean Arthur’s middle of the road gal that will do anything and everything to get closer and Thelma Ritter giving some street smarts and getting some cash as a stool pigeon that give the cops a thing or two as well as keeping a level of respect amongst the other two. All this viewer has to say is, I want that place that Skip resides in.

For some viewers turned off by movies in black and white, after you see Pickup on South Street it won’t matter whether it’s in color or black and white. What will matter is the quality of the film and Pickup is as good a quality as older films can get.

Video: How does it look?

Criterion’s new transfer is an absolute gem. Despite one or two scenes of specks, the rest of the picture is flawless. The day scenes don’t show too much grain and the night scenes are not that obvious when it comes to print flaws. The film also doesn’t suffer from Fox edit, which is when a scene fades into another with an extra cut of focus. This is evident amongst most of their color features but in this film it is not the case and Criterion preserves the film wonderfully. An excellent transfer.

Audio: How does it sound?

The LPCM mono track on Pickup on South Street is what it is. A track from the fifties that has good sound effects and clear dialogue amongst the actors as well as a solid score. The track isn’t as loud as most movies of that time and not as obvious in the sound cuts but it’s decent for the most part and sounds as great as a mono track does which is muted and clear but because of the source materials given to it can never come close to today’s clarity and the Criterion people do their very best to restore the track satisfactorily.

Supplements: What are the extras?

  • Samuel Fuller – Film critic Richard Schickel with Sam Fuller talking about Pickup on South Street and Fuller, with cigar in hand and great knowledge, chats up about filmmaking, his time at Fox, the characters in the film and the development of the project. He is always a great listen and has a lot to say and has a truth to back it up.
  • Imogen Sara Smith – In a newly-recorded feature for this disc, film critic Imogen Sara Smith takes a look at the film as well as some of its stars.
  • Cinema cinemas – This is a ten minute part of a French television show and Sam goes into freezing and forwarding the first few minutes of the movie making some comments on a few things in detail. What could’ve been material repeating itself turns out to be a nice companion piece to the Schickel interview adding some more information and making for a nice summation of seeing from Fuller’s side the making of the picture.
  • Hollywood Radio Theater – As is the case on a lot of Criterion titles, we get the full radio adaptation that was broadcast on June 21, 1954.
  • Trailers – A litany of trailers for other films directed by Fuller.
  • Illustrated Booklet – This booklet has an essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién as well as an excerpt from Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.

The Bottom Line

I’d forgotten how good of a movie this is. At 80 minutes, it’s not a large investment of one’s time, but the movie flows by. Criterion’s new transfer is perfect and the addition of a new feature is, of course, most welcome.

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