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Arts & Culture

Rob Edelman: Cops, Criminals, And Commies: Gangsters As Good Guys

 In so many Hollywood combat films about World War II that were made during World War II, all Americans were portrayed as being united against a common enemy: the dastardly Nazis and heinous Japanese. These Americans even included individuals who otherwise would be the villains of the story. They were gangsters and other blatant lawbreakers who placed patriotism over greed, and who fought side-by-side with their fellow Americans.

Once the war ended and a new conflict began-- this one was of the “cold” variety-- Hollywood movies still occasionally presented lawbreakers as patriots. And the question here is: During the Cold War, could a bad guy place his basic badness on hold, all in the name of fighting communism? The answer is a resounding yes. As proof, take a look at one of the unsung classics of 1950s American cinema: PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, which dates from 1953. It is directed by the legendary Samuel Fuller: crime reporter, World War II combat veteran, and a Hollywood character if there ever was one. And it arguably is his signature work. A new restoration of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET will be screened from May 29 through June 4 at Film Forum in Manhattan.

Richard Widmark, one of the post-war actors who won stardom in the late 1940s and whose career lasted for decades, is the star of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. Widmark earned his Hollywood stripes with his first screen role. In 1947, he played Tommy Udo in KISS OF DEATH. Udo is more the traditional Hollywood thug: a sniveling sadist who, in one memorable scene, shoves a wheelchair-bound lady down a flight of stairs.

In PICKUP..., which was filmed on location in lower Manhattan, Widmark plays Skip McCoy, a make-no-excuses career criminal who already has done three stretches in the pen. He has just completed his last. One more bust, and he will be sent away for life. But McCoy will not be deterred. He is a pickpocket by trade and, at the outset, he is riding a New York subway and pinching a wallet from a woman’s purse. What Skip does not know is that is he is not merely pilfering some easy coin. The woman in question is passing classified military information to a “commie” agent. Included in his haul is some microfilm containing a patent for a new chemical formula and, upon being questioned by the authorities, McCoy is told that, if he does not cooperate, he’ll be “as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb.”

McCoy knows all-too-well that possession of the patent just may bring him a major payday. The otherwise apolitical crook would just as easily shake down as capitalist as a communist, but it’s the early 1950s and the “commies” are a menace to all Americans. So what will Skip McCoy do? Is he first-and-foremost a pickpocket, or is he first-and-foremost a patriot?

Yes indeed, aside from its status as a definitive Samuel Fuller feature, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is a textbook example of the manner in which a film may be a mirror of the era in which it was made.  

A couple of additional observations: Visually-speaking, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is crammed with artfully-designed close-ups. These images communicate the intimacy of those characters who share intimacy and are enmeshed in their emotions. They also capture the angst and sweaty panic of other characters.

Then there is Thelma Ritter, one of the great character performers of her era. Between 1951 and 1963, Ritter earned six Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations but zero wins. One of her nominations was for her role in PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET: a sharpie and professional stool pigeon who lives in a Bowery apartment and offers tips to the NYPD. Ritter’s presence and jaw-dropping performance alone make PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET an extra-special treat.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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