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Pickup on South Street (1953)

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"How tall is King Kong ?"
Oh so many things.

Richard Widmark plays a pickpocket who accidentally steals a precious microfilm. A microfilm ! Remember my answer to that "favorite mcguffin" thread ? Of course you do, it was the best answer. So, everybody in that movie is after that microfilm. Widmark even goes to a public library to check its content, through a microfilm reader, that is used to read newspaper archives on microfilm. That movie made me happy.

Okay, not everybody is after the microfilm. Widmark's character is after the money. Jean Peters' character is after Widmark. The baddies are after wealth redistribution, collectivization, and workers' control of the means of production. The good guys are after commies. But most of these goals can be achieved by finding that microfilm and slapping Jean Peters around. At the start, the baddies have the microfilm and the good guys get to slap Jean Peters around, at the end the good guys have the microfilm and the baddies get to slap Jean Peters around. Balance is restored, Jean Peters marries Richard Widmark (he's the one who slaps best), capitalism's dissenters are neutralized, and the pickpocket hero (he merely robs people in the subway, he's no traitor) is even reformed. It's a 1953 happy end.

Now. I happen to neither have grown up in the 50s, nor in the est/west political poles of the cold war. Europe used to balance a bit its ideology between socialism and capitalism, trying to get the better of both worlds under the watchful eyes of foaming militants from both sides. That's a different cultural climate. In France, Charlie Chaplin wasn't considered a dangerous terrorist, but, let's be frank, neither was Stalin : quite a few freedom-loving artists and intellectual were in total awe in front of that promising brotherly democracy of USSR. That makes the viewing of Pickup on South Street a bit awkward, with all its "we would sell our own mothers and steal anyone's purse, but at least we don't speak to liberals" messaging. Awkward as in : hard to sell. Hard to sell as in : making less money. Uh-ho, goes the proud capitalist.

You know what ? No problem. Frenchies only watch dubbed versions anyway, so, all the 20th Century Fox has to do is to adjust the dialogues for the Red Countries. And this is why, as I just realised, Pickup on South Street and Le Port de la Drogue ("The Drug Harbor") are actually the same film. Pickup on South Street is a spy movie, Le Port de la Drogue is a gangsters movie. Same images, different dialogues. Le Port de la Drogue is in french, features no communists, and pits cops versus narco-traffickers instead. The microfilm which, in english, used to hold some secret chemical formula threatening to destabilize the cold war's balance of power (it's not explicit but I assume it to be the coca cola recipe) is translated, in french, as a recipe for a new powerful drug (probably also coca cola, now that I think of it). Yes, in 1953, France was terrorizing Hollywood studios like today's China. What does the mind do ? It boggles.

Apart from that (its abject selling out, or its disrespect for the bolshevik revolution, depending on your perspective), is it a good movie ? Well, it's visually gorgeous. It's tense. It's surprisingly erotic (I mean, during its few breaks from wife beating sessions) : the direct close ups on caressed faces and passionate kisses feel very not Hays at all. The violence, in contrast, is tame : the camera gently pans away when a skull is blown up at point blank range. The acting is excellent. The central characters are interestingly grey which makes them unpredictable, and not only in the slap kiss slap way. Thieves and robbers ganging up against commies evoke indirectly the mob's solidarity against M's pedophile (I mean Peter Lorre's character, not James Bond, come on, they weren't that young). I suppose the french version makes narcotics the cause of collective outrage ? An interesting trope of its own in gangster movies, even if maybe less credible.

And there is the star of the movie. Thelma Ritter, as the most charismatic, comedic, charming, moving and entertaining character of the film. An ageing informant (who refuses this term, she wouldn't inform anyone of anything without considering the circumstances), hellbent on selling ties at the most inopportune of times, yet believably successful at it. At 51, she accidentally out-femme-fatales Jean Peters, but that's what true unassuming charisma does. And both her explicit and implicit backgrounds make her the most tragic character in the story. She may be the best reason to watch this film.

This, and the lovely waterfront shack that Widmark's character inhabits, which truly gives this film its Quai des Brumes-like atmosphere. A great set for a movie, deliciously exploited through all possible angles by Samuel Fuller. It's the Millenium Falcon of Pickup on South Street, and is exploited like a pirate movie's three-master. In gorgeous nocturnal black-and-white shots, it evokes a perfect shelter at the margin of society, fitting for a character who (again, like Han Solo) seems reluctant to take sides in the raging geopolitical conflict.

So, the geopolitics are dated but highly interesting (especially with the different versions), the sexism is unbearable, more cringeworthy than hilarious, yet again historically interesting. The images and acting are beautiful. The characters are sufficiently nuanced (and post-nuanced as their nuance reveals heroic limits) to not be boring. And the setting just stays with the spectator afterwards. Widmark is cool, even though we may be supposed to like his character more than I do, but, surprisingly, Thelma Ritter and a wooden shack are what define the film's texture above all, and what make it stand out.

Now, you people want popcorn ratings. I don't know how to do popcorn ratings. It's super late I'm super tired, won't investigate now. If I was to do popcorn rating, I'd rate it...

3 / 5, or 3-and-a-half / 5 ?
[Edit: popcorn rated (thx gbgoodies) ]

It really depends on how you tolerate or appreciate the maccarthyst violence in it. I'm really indifferent to it, because I see it with detached historical distance. Some movies denounce distant but genuine atrocities threatening the local model (don't overdo the left, guys) while other denounce local milder but also genuine injustices (don't overdo the right, guys), and for some reason both were uselessly at each others' throats. Stupid times. What movies do you expect from these.

Well, still good movies, given some understanding for that aspect.

Pickup On South Street is the #1 movie in my Top 10 Profile. I'd rate it a
for the outstanding characterization by Richard Widmark, Jean Peters and Thelma Ritter. Samuel Fuller is one of the under sung directors from the 20th century. His trademark was allowing the actors to be 'of the moment' and not to restrain them like so many other directors did.

Now, you people want popcorn ratings. I don't know how to do popcorn ratings. It's super late I'm super tired, won't investigate now. If I was to do popcorn rating, I'd rate it...

3 / 5, or 3-and-a-half / 5 ?

How to do Popcorn Box Ratings:
If I answer a game thread correctly, just skip my turn and continue with the game.