Monday, August 11, 2008

Pickup on South Street

I mentioned Richard Widmark the other day in Don't Bother To Knock. Today he's the featured star in TCM's "Summer Under the Stars". Since he spent much of the early part of his career under contract to 20th Century-Fox, the day's fare consists mostly of his later work. However, TCM were able to prise one movie away from Fox: the outstanding Pickup on South Street, airing this evening at 8:00 PM ET.

Widmark stars as a petty thief who's been in trouble with the law quite a bit, and consistently has the police tailing him as a result. He doesn't seem to have any other ability in life, so he continues his thieving ways, by picking the pocketbook of a lovely young woman on the el train (Jean Peters). Unfortunately, what he doesn't realize is that the wallet he's taken doesn't simply contain money; it contains something else very important: a microfilm holding secrets that the Communists want. The Communists were of course just as vile and thuggish as the Mob back in those days, so when they find out that what they wanted has gone missing, they'll stop at nothing to get it back! Powers much higher than the regular police are in on the hunt, too, and at times it seems as though poor Widmark and Peters are destined to be little more than pawns. In reality, though, Widmark is much smarter than that.

The thought of criminals getting more than they bargained for is nothing new; this particular subgenre became a more popular brand of noir in the 1950s, both with the "perfect crime gone wrong" movies like The Asphalt Jungle, and the "person trying to make crime pay for themselves against the Mob" movies like Man In the Vault. Most of them are enjoyable, even if they're just B-movies. However, thanks in part to the work of Widmark, as well as that of Sam Fuller, who both wrote and directed the movie, Pickup on South Street might be the best of them all.

There's a third reason to watch: The always wonderful Thelma Ritter plays Moe, a police informant who's seen it all, and realizes that in having seen it all, she's seen too much. She, like Widmark, Peters, and the rest of the lot, are squalid little characters living at best on the edge of respectable society. It's an existance that, to quote Hobbes' Leviathan is nasty, brutish, and short -- and Moe is more than accepting of the fact that her short existence might be coming to a quick end. Ritter received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the fourth consecutive year, and might have given her best performance yet. Unfortunately, as so often happened back in the studio era, there was more than one performance that was worthy of recognition from the Academy, and Ritter had the bad luck of being up against such a performance: that of Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity.

Happily, Pickup on South Street is available on DVD, so if you miss tonight's showing on TCM, you can catch it any time you want.

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