I’d Rather Have You Talk Without a Twist

Posted: 10/06/2013 in 1953

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After all of the costume dramas and period pieces that 1953 has served up to us so far, what a breath of fresh air we get with Samuel Fuller’s dark and gritty Pickup on South Street.   With this piece of noir film-making, we have our second big contender for best picture this year!  In fact, it is quite probable that we will not see another film like this for the rest of the year.  Amidst all of the Cold War anti-communist hysteria of the year, we get a film here that keeps things real and shies away from politics.  Sure the communists are the “bad guys” but so are everyone else.  This is not a film that portrays communists in the cops vs. robbers, good vs. evil fashion.  This is a film about the underbelly of New York City and those that dwell inside it.  The script is sharp, the dialogue is pointed, and it carries the overall fingerprint of Sam Fuller throughout.  It is refreshing to see a film, not filmed in some historic location or some faraway place, but a film set right inside contemporary New York, seedy characters and all.

Sam Fuller is very much to be congratulated for this small masterpiece.  The writing and directing are right on the money.  Some criticize the dialogue for being stagy or very much of the noir genre, but I say that I would have been greatly disappointed with anything different.  Mr. Fuller drops us right into a New York that may be very unreal for some, but quite authentic from the point of view of others.   While some may accuse the film of dark melodrama, I say that Mr. Fuller has given us some of the rawest and most masterfully directed scenes of the year.  With the rules of film-making as they are in 1953, Fuller does a masterful job of giving us something ugly and grimy, and at the same time giving it to us within the confines of government censorship rules and still making it beautiful.  There is a small, compact vision to Pickup on South Street, and it is one that is very much appreciated by this reviewer.

Richard Widmark and Jean Peters do fine jobs in their lead roles.  The level of irreverence is definitely there as Mr. Fuller would have it.  They have few if any redeeming qualities, yet we fall for them just the same.  The heart and soul of this film, however, is without a doubt Thelma Ritter.  Her Moe is engaging and truthful, dishonest and cunning, admirable and heartbreaking.  Ms. Ritter lifts this film above the dialogue of the genre, much like Marlon Brando did with Julius Caesar.  Not only will Ms. Ritter’s performance be remembered by year’s end, it may just take Oscar gold.  To call her performance Oscar-worthy almost isn’t fair.  I am ready to hand her the Oscar right now.  The facial expression and raw emotion that she infuses into Moe, from her most humorous to her darkest of hours, is something uncanny and worthy of attention.

As we are now at the halfway mark of the year, it is clear that we have had a few films rise of above the fray.   In fact, not only does Pickup on South Street rise above the fray, it spits in its face, slaps it, and makes it cry.  While this film may not be the best lesson in old-fashioned values, there is much to be learned from these characters.  Ultimately, Sam Fuller gives us a lesson in how to balance raw and ugly with subtle and cinematic, and he pulls it off beautifully.

**** ~AOS

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