PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, 1953

18745t080fg0140925519wqnc5My oh my it’s been a long time! I don’t know what happened with the month – it simply got away from me and resulted in a deplorable absence. But blog, I thought of you daily (more or less), and hoped we’d be together again very soon. AND, it’s really come full circle because it’s another blogathon – SNOOPATHON hosted by the excellent Movies Silently, and another Richard Widmark joint, Fox’s notorious cold war noir Pickup On South Street.

Pickup on South Street doesn’t fuck around. If you’re looking for a noir with a slow build, melodrama, subplots, and intricate character back stories – you’d best look somewhere else. ‘Pickup’ out-Spillanes Mickey Spillane, and director Sam Fuller’s stark journalistic camera work and no-frills script assault the screen for a straight 80 minutes. It’s violent, it’s mean, it’s tawdry, it’s terrific, it’s some serious pulp and apparently the MPAA was asleep at the wheel because the knock-down drag-out between Jean Peters and Richard Kiley is crazy.

pickuptiltedRichard Widmark gives a trade-mark square jawed, shifty-eyed performance as master pickpocket and “three time loser”, the excellently named Skip McCoy. We meet Skip on a train, glancing around furtively and fixing to empty the purse of Candy – fabulous Jean Peters in a fabulous white wiggle dress. Tres Monroe. Sure, having your pocket-picked by a canon (a pickpocket who targets women) is bad enough, but it’s certainly worse when you’re being followed by FBI agents and your purse is chock-full of stolen US government secrets.

Yes Ma’am, Skip’s picked the wrong purse. See, our girl Candy was meant to deliver that microfilm on behalf of her commie ex-boyfriend Joey to some shadowy Red higher-ups. Joey and the Communists and the FBI agents have one thing in common – they both desperately want to recover that microfilm.

Pickup on South StreetJoey sends poor Candy to use her “connections” (read: Candy’s done some unsavory things for dress money) to track down the pickpocket. Meanwhile, on the side of the short arm of the law, police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) (also, seriously, he’s a police captain named DAN TIGER) and FBI Agent Zara (Willis Bouchey) put their heads together and pay local stoolie Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter, who should’ve won the Oscar) for a few likely suspects.

Candy tracks down Skip and uses more than a few feminine wiles and the promise of money to get the film back, but Skip, sensing the importance after viewing the microfilm, is holding out for a bigger score. Also, at some point Candy develops a crush on Skip – why? Well, it’s certainly not because he’s a gentle soul who treats her with the kindness she’s obviously never known. Probably because he’s familiarly caustic and they obviously want to nail each other. I’d sugar-coat that for you a bit if it were possible, but like I said – Pickup on South Street doesn’t care about your feelings.

apickup005There’s some back and forth, and with Joey feeling the heat from his Communist bosses, he pays Moe a visit to demand the address of the pickpocket. And here’s where Pickup slows down to one of its only emotional plateaus – if you only see one movie featuring the great character actress Thelma Ritter, this should be it. Moe will not surrender the address of Skip, even at gunpoint. It’s less of an act of patriotism than it is simply a person reaching the end of the road. It’s a heartbreaking, singular scene with Moe’s monologue about how she won’t ever have the fancy funeral she’s poured her life savings into. Oh, that? It’s nothing, I just have something in my eye. No, I get terrible hay-fever this time of year. (I CAN’T SEE MY KEYBOARD THROUGH THESE TEARS.)

Anyway, eventually Candy procures the film, but there’s a frame missing, which drives Joey to beat the living tar out of her. Skip, looking to settle the score, tracks Joey down at a subway, and ultimately, in kind of a film-noir-in-reverse move, does the right thing. Skip and Candy ride off into the uneasy and vaguely discouraging sunset.

Pickup on South Street 2As an ex-journalist, director Sam Fuller developed a very recognizable style which lends itself particularly well to noir, westerns, and war pictures. Pickup On South Street can certainly be broken down in terms of headlines – scene for scene, Fuller wastes no time in establishing who, what, when, where, and how. It’s the kind of pure cinema I’d liken to Hitchcock or Goddard – Joseph MacDonald’s camerawork is fluid and razor sharp as he effortlessly employs extreme close-ups, high angles, and shoots tightly choreographed fight scenes in long shots. Even the much-maligned push-in has its day in Pickup. In keeping with the journalistic style, the film doesn’t lean as much on arty shadows and contrast – instead, there’s a focus on gritty, physical details.

If you can track down a documentary or if you see any special features featuring Fuller – definitely do. He’s quite a character, barking out pearls of filmmaking and storytelling advice with his ever-present cigar. Dude’s an American master (and allegedly very proud that his cigars were a full two inches longer than Fox studio head Daryl Zanuck’s.)

And now, it is a Snoopathon, let’s take a moment for the spy stuff. Shhhh… come close. It’s a secret.

Many critics have read a deeper political agenda into Pickup on South Street, but I would think that any concrete conclusions Pickup draws on patriotism are arbitrary. There is certainly the suggestion that even the most marginal of characters, the stars of Pickup – the thief, the prostitute, and the stool pigeon – are not as bad as communists (nor will they, for the most part, do business with the Reds), but this is somewhat incidental. The characters are out for themselves, and though they do strike back at communism in some small way, it’s largely apolitical. Fuller has said alternately that the film is merely a thriller and made to poke a little fun at the paranoia of the Red Menace, when, as he claims, many Americans knew so little about it. (I am reminded Gary Cooper’s quote that he didn’t know too much about communism, but from what he heard, it’s not on the level. Oh, Gary. When you look that good in pants, it’s okay to say stuff like that.)

Sorry, it's late - here's an off-topic picture of G Coop thinking deep thoughts.

Sorry, it’s late – here’s an off-topic picture of G Coop thinking deep thoughts.

In the end, the microfilm is mostly a catalyst for a few monumental events in the lives of a few sad people. Who are the 39 Steps? Doesn’t matter. It is perhaps best summed up by Moe’s line “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I just know I don’t like them.”

‘Til next time – and I’ll see you real soon; for Chrissakes, don’t keep your stolen government secrets in your purse.

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KISS OF DEATH, 1947

ImageWhen I saw that there was a Great Villain Blogathon going down, as hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin, and Speakeasy, I quickly narrowed my short list of noir bad guys I wouldn’t want to fuck with down to the giggling maniac himself, Tommy Udo in Fox’s KISS OF DEATH.

As we know, film noir is full of bad guys. It’s full of bad girls. It’s full of good guys who are kind of bad and bad guys who are a little bit good, but likely none are as irretrievably, murderously insane as Mr. Udo, as played by Richard Widmark in his unforgettable film debut. See, we’re not talking about a provocative, powerful James Cagney type. We’re not talking about a guy who fell off the deep end due to social misfortune, a flawed villain grappling with some kind of deep-seated moral quandary. Tommy Udo, in his black suit, white tie, and oversized fedora is just the kind of absurd, cartoonish nutcase who’d set the bar for all kinds of loose cannon socipaths to follow. Widmark was nominated for 1947’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar but lost to – get this – Edmund Gwenn as Kriss Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Yep, passed over for Santa Claus, but at least Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck knew a good thing when he saw it, and a good deal of the film’s advertising centered on Tommy Udo, with theatre owners putting up WANTED signs.

ImageWe are introduced to Tommy in the holding cell he’s sharing with our ever-so humble hero, Nick Bianco (an intense Victor Mature). Nick Bianco’s an ex-con and consequently unemployed – that’s why he’s been picked up for a jewel heist on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, Nick’s also a family man, so, Merry Christmas, Bianco daughters – see you in therapy. Tommy’s watching the prison guard, then leans over to Bianco, “Lookit that cheap squirt, passing up and down,” he says in a high, nasal voice, “For a nickel I’d grab him, stick both thumbs right in his eyes…. and hang on till he drops dead.”

Yessir, that’s Tommy Udo, and by the end of the film, we’re left believing he’d do it for free. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Nick. Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo is prepared to offer Nick a plea deal – if he names his accomplices, he’s looking at a lighter sentence. But there is honor among thieves, and Nick declines, knowing that his partners in crime and his crooked attorney Earl Howser will look after the wife and kids.

ImageThree years into Nick’s 20 year sentence, Mrs. Bianco Sylvia-Plaths her way into an early grave and Nick finds out from ex-babysitter Nettie Cavallo (Coleen Gray, always great as the love interest of the flawed hero, probably because hurting Coleen Gray is like stepping on a kitten) that his ex-accomplice Rizzo attacked his late wife. This motivates him to start all sorts of squealing, also telling slippery old Howser that Rizzo’s the rat to deflect any suspicion. Alas, Howser’s a closer and calls up Tommy Udo to dispose of Rizzo.

ImageUnfortunately for Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound Mom, Rizzo’s not at home, and Tommy doesn’t cotton to disappointments. It isn’t enough for him to drop his cigarette butt on her floor. So then he does… that thing that he does. Yep, in one of the more shocking moments of violence from the 40s, Tommy rips the cord from the floor lamp, restrains Ma Rizzo, and then PUSHES HER DOWN THE STAIRS. Here, let’s watch together. Note Tommy’s skeezy mouth wipe and ever-present chuckle.

Indeed, he didn’t get a chance to kill Rizzo, but he certainly took those lemons and made lemonade, as he relates the story of ex-Ma Rizzo to Howser with palatable relish. (It’s a particularly good scene, incidentally. Taylor Holmes as Howser is so cold.)

ImageA newly-paroled Nick is now free to marry Nettie and obligated to help D’Angelo by spending an evening out with Udo, mining information about his various crimes. Not that he has to mine too hard – Tommy is many things, but a criminal mastermind isn’t one of them. He alternates bragging about his crimes with urging boxers to tear each others eyes out, joking around with Nick at dinner, and being at once dismissive, insulting, and genuinely threatening to his lady friend. “Dames are no good if you wanna have some fun,” he chortles, after shoving his date in the hip.

Nick gleans enough valuable information to satisfy D’Angelo and when Udo’s trial comes up, Nick is called to testify. Reluctantly, he does, but it isn’t enough. Udo is then acquitted due to insufficient evidence (which is surprising, since he’s so obviously a ticking time bomb of crazy).

ImageCertain that the police can’t protect him or his family and not the sort of man who’s going to spend the rest of his life looking over this shoulder, Nick orchestrates a showdown, and no one comes up as the clear winner.

While not the best of director Henry Hathaway’s noirs, Kiss of Death has a lot going for it. A title card at the beginning asserts that the film was shot all on location (notably at Sing Sing prison, where the inmates had to be cleared out as a law prohibited photographing real live criminals), and though some scenes do look like studio sets, Kiss of Death still has the docu-noir style that gives it a certain freshness. Further, Kiss of Death is not best work of writers Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, (who have a ton of monster hits between them), however, there’s certainly a lot of meat in the story. It was definitely enough to piss off Joe Breen at the MPAA, who disliked the suggestion that law enforcement is “utterly futile ” and requires the testimony of a stool pigeon to convict criminals and felt that the script undermined the justice system and portrayed the courts as being ineffective. You bet it does! Despite these issues, all of this remains in the finished film, Bianco even notes, “Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine.” To which D’Angelo answers dryly, “With one big difference… we hurt bad people, not good ones.” The line is a paltry excuse to eschew the virtue of law enforcement – in Nick’s hour of need, law enforcement is typically ineffectual – the legal system doesn’t come through for him, echoing early in the story when his criminal cohorts hang him out to dry.

The MPAA x’ed one scene from the film, even though traces of it remain in a blink-and-you’ll miss it line – after dinner, Tommy takes Nick to a shadowy old house. “What’s that smell?” asks Nick, “Perfume!” giggles Tommy. Why, I do declare – it’s a drug den, and the original script allegedly contained more references to Tommy as a drug user.

ImageAnd speaking of Nick, Kiss of Death is often cited as one of Victor Mature’s best performances, and he’s marvelous – quietly believable as a hood and also as a loving, if misguided Father. However, despite the relatively low amount of screen time, Kiss of Death is Richard Widmark’s picture, and as good as Mature is, sometimes we’re just waiting for Tommy to show up, because shit gets real when a guy pushes an old lady down the stairs and all bets are pretty much off regarding what kind of mischief that crazy kid will get up to next.

ImageTommy Udo isn’t just Richard Widmark’s bravura debut performance. Udo is both a menace and a sadist, a cyclone of irritating habits, bleating obnoxiousness, and balls-out lunacy. He’s so over-the-top nuts that it all equals out to a kind of magnetism, and I’m not saying he’s the first berserk psycho that made audiences enjoy violence, but he’s certainly a front-runner. The early noirs brought murder into the home, made it acceptable to watch, but Tommy Udo made it fun which would prove an indelible influence on the crime dramas and horror films to follow.

‘Til next time, keep it on the safety brake.

ImageDefinitely do poke around the Blogathon for the silver screen’s best baddies, and if you’re not following me on Twitter, you should know that you’re missing out on shirtless Cary Grant beach running pictures.