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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NIGHTMARE ALLEY, 1947

ImageWho wasn’t a fan of Tyrone Power in 1947? He was all dreamy! He looked great in period costume, with a rapier, and with a lacy cravat. He made movie-love and swashbuckled like a champ. He was Zorro, for chrissakes. But 20th Century Fox’s biggest star wanted to prove his range, (being the heir to the Tyrone Power acting dynasty and all – following his Father, Grandfather, and Great-Grandfather, all named Tyrone Power) and he campaigned for the lead in the film version of William Lindsay Gresham’s gothic sleazoid carnival noir, Nightmare Alley. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wasn’t pleased about it, but eventually relented, giving top production value to a film that would’ve ended up with b-status. What results is a sordid little movie made by some very talented folks.

Not that it benefited from that at the time – Fox didn’t publicize Nightmare Alley’s release and unceremoniously dumped it into a few theatres, just long enough for it to be disliked by critics and then locked away for years due to copyright disputes. Eventually released by Fox’s Noir imprint, Nightmare Alley’s finally been getting the love it deserves.

ImageStanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) weasels his way into carnival work and is fascinated by two acts – the geek, a howling drunk who bites off the heads of live chickens and is paid off with whiskey (a sideshow act which is quite illegal), and mentalist Mademoiselle Zeena (an excellent Joan Blondell, ingenue days firmly behind her, all patient and world-weary with her dark roots showing) who works with her drunkard husband Pete using an ingenious code to predict and answer burning questions from her audience. Stan wants to know the code and work with Zeena, but she remains loyal to Pete (hoping to send him to detox) and to keeping the secret of the code, which she plans to sell someday.

Then, Stan *accidentally* gives Pete a bottle of prop wood alcohol rather than moonshine which leads to his death. With little choice, Zeena teaches Stan the code, they fool around a bit, and it all results in a successful carnival act. Stan ends up as skilled in fake mind-reading as Zeena.

His girl on the side is Molly – Coleen Gray, as steadfast and adorable as ever, with an electric act where she gets to look like this:

ImageZeena finds out, and Stan and Molly end up married and ousted from the carnival. Stan gets a real tux and they start a classy new act, using the code in nightclubs. The beginning of the end (maybe the mid-point of the end) is when Stan meets a calculating female analyst, appropriately named Lilith (Helen Ritter in predatory masculine-cut 40’s suits), and they plot to fleece Lilith’s rich patients with Stan fencing messages from beyond the grave.

nightmarealleyAnd it would’ve worked, too, if Stan didn’t enlist the help of naive young Molly to serve as a ghostly apparition, in a gorgeously shot garden scene where she emerges, back-lit in the woods while Stan and the dupe watch. After Molly’s ill-timed freak-out, Stan flees with the dupe’s money – or so he thinks.

Lilith, of course, is prepared with a double cross, and The Great Stanton ends up a poor old drunkard. What makes a geek, Nightmare Alley asks? Bad decisions. A God Complex. Analysts. Desperation. Alcohol.

Whether it’s the fault of the production code or Daryl F. Zanuck himself, here’s where Nightmare Alley cheats itself. Stan shows up at a carnival, inebriated, looking like this:

nightmare-geek…and tries to get a job. He is told there is only one job opening – the geek. He is asked if he can handle it, to which he responds memorably with “Mister, I was made for it.”

And that should be the end – pride goeth before a fall and all of that, but then we are treated to a sentimental coda where there is hope for Stan to reunite with Molly, as if the idea of Zorro spending the rest of his days out of his mind on moonshine and biting off poultry heads is just too much to bare.

But, it certainly wouldn’t be the first or last tacked-on ending to an otherwise hard-hitting film noir. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a consistently interesting one – without gangsters, detectives, or gun molls, Nightmare Alley manages to be genre defining with its carnival setting and strong performances. There’s something particularly seedy and anti-American about the carnival’s dirty underbelly. Some of Nightmare Alley’s strongest moments are veteran cinematographer Lee Garmes’ ambling tracking shots behind the carnival tents and away from the lights. There’s some great use of non-diegetic sound – at pivotal points in Stan’s downfall (mostly when he’s drinking and feeling guilty over Pete’s death), he hears the tortured howling of the geek. Brilliant.

Tyrone Power was quoted as saying “Charm is Bullshit”, and never has that sentiment been more apparent than in his portrayal of Stanton Carlisle. Power’s ‘The Great Stanton’ is a scheming opportunist – certainly, there’s no shortage of charm in his arsenal, but it has none of the warmth that made teen girls swoon. Handsome as ever (save the end, when Ben Nye transforms him into a hollow-cheeked ghoul), there’s still something markedly off about him, even in the early scenes with his narrowed, kohl rimmed eyes – swarmy through and through.

Alas, following one of his best performances, Tyrone Power never made another film noir. He did, however, go on a possibly romantic vacation with Cesar Romero and do a lot of critically acclaimed theatre.

‘Til we meet again – steer clear of the seers and stay out of the geek tent.

xo.