Reel Talk

Pickup on South Street, a Cold War Noir

Pickup Poster

I think I’ve made it abundantly clear at this point that I’m a big fan of noir cinema. But I have to admit, I do have a bit of a blind spot regarding the genre when it doesn’t involve detectives. Anything that was a crime drama from this period of Hollywood technically qualifies as a noir, but if it doesn’t feature a gumshoe tracking down a lead, I’m usually not as aware of it. But I took a slight step to rectify that tonight when I stopped by a screening of a noir called Pickup on South Street at the Alamo Drafthouse. This movie was very strange, but I liked it quite a bit, and it represents a type of movie that I’ve never seen before, but am very interested into looking for more examples, a Cold War noir. It makes sense that this sub-genre would exist, since the golden age of film noir overlaps with the beginning of the Cold War, but it seemed like a pretty novel idea to me.

Now, in true noir fashion, the plot is twisty and complicated as hell, but it basically boils down to a rather intriguing premise. A pickpocket accidentally steals government secrets that were intended for some communists, and gets drawn into political spy plot against his will. The film follows the awesomely named Skip McCoy as he steals a wallet out of the purse of a woman named Candy on the subway. But unbeknownst to Skip, or Candy for that matter, the wallet contained micro-film of some chemical process that Candy was being duped into delivering for a Communist spy. A government agent named Zara was on the subway was staking out Candy, and witnessed the theft. He pretty much immediately heads to the police to find out who the pickpocket was, and gets help from a NYPD Captain whose name is seriously Tiger. Captain Tiger (seriously, how awesome is that?) has the idea to bring in an informant of his to find the pickpocket. And man do I love this character. The informant is an older woman named Moe who has some sort of vague connection in the underworld, and covers up her illegal actions as some sort of door to door tie salesman. She acts like a stoolie for the police in exchange of money that she’s keeping in a fund to buy herself a grave and tombstone instead of being buried in a Potter’s field. She was a super awesome character. An old lady who didn’t take shit from anybody, the whole movie.

Pickup Moe

Zara describes the technique the pickpocket used, and Moe is able to identify it as Skip McCoy, a local pickpocket with three strikes against him who just got out of jail. He apparently lives in some sketchy shed out on the docks that has no electricity, and is plastered with weird magazine clippings of women’s faces. Tiger and Zara come to McCoy’s shack, and try to get him to give them the film, claiming that if he doesn’t he’s unpatriotic, but he’s super obstinate, and doesn’t give them anything. Meanwhile, Candy, the woman who had the film in the first place, tells her ex-boyfriend Joey about getting the film stolen. She doesn’t know it, but Joey is a communist spy, and was using her to drop off the film to his handler. He convinces her to use her contacts in the underground to find Skip, and she eventually finds her way to Moe as well, and eventually Skip. We then get a crazy scene where Candy sneaks into Skip’s shack to find the film, and he punches her so hard it knows her out, then she tries to seduce him into stealing the film. But by this point Skip has figured out that the film has something to do with Communists, so he tells her that he wants $25,000, and calls her a Commie. Candy finally asks Joey about being a Communist, and he pretty much flat out admits it, then is told by his superior to find Skip and kill him. Which Candy doesn’t like because even though he punched her right in the damn face, she’s now in love with him? Whatever. Joey ends up finding his way to Moe as well, and in a super depressing scene, he demands she tells him where Skip is, but she refuses. So after delivering some really sad lines about not getting a funeral after all, Joey kills her. Too far Joey. You could be a Communist spy, but you just killed my favorite character!

Pickup Moe Death

The next morning Candy shows up in Skip’s shack to tell him that Moe was killed, then knocks him the hell out and steals the film from him. She brings it to Tiger and Zara, wanting clemency. They come up with a plan where she’ll tell Joey where she is, with the film, and they’ll catch him. But when Joey shows up at the hotel that she’s hiding at, he doesn’t take well to her sass, and ends up shooting her in the back, and running off with the film, which he finds is missing an important frame. He somehow avoids the police by hiding in a dumbwaiter, then awkwardly jumping out and pistol-whipping a cop to death. I doubt a dumbwaiter is really an effective hiding place, but I guess he proved me wrong. Candy ends up living, and is in the hospital as Joey heads off to kill Skip and find the missing frame. Skip sneaks around his shack as Joey shows up, and then tails him to a subway station where he’s going to trade the film with a Communist superior. He follows Joey into a subway bathroom where he sees him trade the film, then starts beating the hell out of Joey and the other Communist in a crazy brutal fight scene. Then he gets the film back, and gives it to Tiger and Zara in exchange for amnesty for his past crimes. Then Skip and Candy leave, apparently happily ever after.

This was a really strange movie. It was full of all the trappings of a noir, especially the ridiculous dialogue, but was also mixed in with some fun spy stuff. In a way it reminded me of the Big Lebowski, having a character who has no idea what’s going on getting thrown into a situation he doesn’t understand. It was basically a noir character who accidentally got thrown into a spy plot. It also had a weird stance on Communism. It was dripping with Anti-Commie sentiment that seems at home in the early 50’s. Yeah, Skip was pretty apathetic towards both Communism and American patriotism, but he was also a criminal who punched a lady in the face. Which I guess was better than the real Commie, who shot the same lady. It definitely had some issues, mainly misogynist elements that were pretty emblematic of the times, but overall I thought it was an interesting movie that smashed together two of my favorite genres in a way that I’d never seen before. And Moe was awesome. RIP you weird, tie-selling old stoolie.

Pickup On South Street (1953) Directed and written by Samuel Fuller Shown from left: Richard Widmark (as Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (as Candy)

Pickup on South Street was written and directed by Samuel Fuller, and distributed by 20th Century Fox, 1953

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