Aaron Luk's Collective Experience - 9. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET [entries|userinfo|friends|rss|archive]
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9. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET [Jan. 25th, 2005|12:48 am]
Aaron Luk
dir. Samuel Fuller, USA 1953.
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0046187/

Look no further for one of the most entertaining sets of acting matchups in film noir. Every member of this charged cast bats heavy dialogue against each other, leaving the verbal equivalent of blunt force trauma, but ultimately Thelma Ritter must be declared the acting champion in this crisply rendered (a)morality play. Ritter would be Oscar-nominated for her supporting performance as Moe Williams, an aged stool pigeon who uniquely blends seasoned huckstering, a twisted sense of honor and maternity, and a touching wretchedness, snatching every scene from the instant she enters the film. The other actors are also quite fine, fully inhabiting their roles with their own individuality, refusing to let any other casting possibilities seem anything but ridiculous.

Richard Widmark leads as the anti-hero pickpocket, a three-time loser who nonetheless has somehow managed to retain complete confidence in his street skills and projected persona. He has passed the point where he needs to act tough at all, and barrels through the law and other silly societal customs by sheer force of personality and bravado. Widmark somehow manages to convey this, delivering Fuller's highly stylized dialogue ("Everybody likes everybody when they're kissing...") while not appearing to chew the scenery at all. The plot kick starts immediately from the very first scene, in which Widmark's Skip McCoy steals the contents of a woman's purse, including a McGuffin microfilm, on a crowded subway in New York. The woman in question, Candy (Jean Peters), happens to be under surveillance by Federal agents, who rightly suspect her involvement in a Communist plot - so despite Skip's perfect lift, he is spotted by the Feds. The plot then splits three ways, with the Feds collaborating with police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye), and then Joey (Richard Kiley), Candy's ex-boyfriend and boss, commanding her to recover the microfilm, and finally Skip trying to make out well for himself from the whole deal.

What makes the Skip character so enjoyable to watch is that despite the high stakes regarding the fate of national security, he insouciantly insists on somehow making money from the microfilm, holding out for a big score, even if he is dealing with Commies. His obsession with himself makes him even more inspirational to the other characters, raising their emotional level whenever they are around him. Tiger loses his cool in all his dealings with Skip, forever promising to put him behind bars once and for all, despite the relatively small scores with which Skip usually deals. Candy, who is no slouch in the toughness department, all but melts in Skip's presence, though she always retains enough acidity to remain the femme fatale - she never appears completely helpless or weak, even when Skip has silently forced his arms all around and over her. Candy's relative cool plays in amusing contrast with Joey, who Kiley projects as constantly panicked and desperate. Kiley (THE PHENIX CITY STORY) appears to be able to sweat on cue, and his constantly rising level of frantic intensity makes him the perfect foil to the calm and confident Skip.

Of course, trumping them all is Ritter's Moe, who has dealings with every major character in the piece, grifting each of them in a specific way. In this microcosm, information is the commodity prized by all parties, and Moe is the person that knows everything. Self-assured when she needs to be, vulnerable and tragic at other times, Ritter/Moe really does it all, representing and evoking every possible emotion expressible by humanity. Fuller even sneaks in a few moments of Moe by herself before she is disturbed by another character, giving the audience the slightest glimpse of what the real Moe may be. As Moe glumly and sadly folds her clothes in her small and dingy flat, or puts on a record before going to bed, then shifts expression when there is a knock on the door, Ritter shows so much character with so little. She's also given plenty of opportunity to have fun with the dialogue as well, delivering most of the memorable lines in the film, in both humorous and tragic contexts.

Full of detailed touches and nuances in performance and production, Fuller's noir is aces on every level. He makes the material fun for the actors and the audience, establishing the universe quickly and welcoming everyone into it. One can comfortably enjoy the film free of its historical or political contexts, and simply relish the delicious character moments and interactions. The story does what noir does best, populating the entire ensemble with underdogs that are caught up in a scope that is bigger than they can handle. The refreshing difference here is that none of the characters act like they are in over their heads (except for Joey, who goes to the opposite extreme), making their hearty exchanges always dynamic and compelling - who will be the first to break? It's the perfect setup for a tournament of actors to challenge each other and raise the bar constantly, and it paid off beautifully.
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