Movie Night With Urbaniak: Pickup on South Street


 nor I have ever seen Pickup on South Street, but after The Naked Kiss I’m curious to hear his take on Samuel Fuller’s, erm, unique approach to screen acting. So he comes over and we watch the movie.

“A maddening director,” says Urbaniak. And “maddening” is certainly an apt description. You’re watching a Sam Fuller movie and you’rethinking, “this guy is so bad, he doesn’t understand the first thing about what film is,” and then out of nowhere he’ll produce some effect so daring, so creative and so sophisticated that it’ll make your head spin.  And he’ll do this, mmm, about sixty times in the course of a 90-minute feature.

In Pickup there’s an actor named Murvyn Vye playing “Detective Tiger,” and there isn’t a single spontaneous, heartfelt or natural line reading, gesture or movement in his entire performance. I mean, this is a guy who looks out a window and says “He’s here,” and not only do you not believe he’s seeing anyone, you don’t believe he’s ever looked out a window before. And you despair because you’re watching a lame police drama. Then, out of nowhere, ace pro Thelma Ritter walks in, acting as though she’s in a completely different movie, and just mops up the floor with the guy. Just takes the mop handle out of the closet, screws it into the guy’s navel, and literally mops the floor with him. And just as you’re about done marveling at the great Thelma Ritter’s performance, you realize that the scene you’ve been watching has been an eight-minute long extended take, full of dollies and zooms and tracking movements, and you remember that you’re watching a movie by one of the true mad geniuses of American film.

Similarly, there’s Jean Peters as The Girl. The Girl is supposed to be a hard-nose, hard-luck dame who’s been around the block a few times, and she honestly looks like a perfectly nice young lady who’s watched a few movies. You can’t believe she’s the lead, she’s fake and flat and all surface. Then, she goes to see co-lead Richard Widmark and a weird thing happens. He picked her purse, she needs the maguffin back or its her head, and next thing you know, Widmark is putting the moves on her and she’s totally falling for him. The scene shouldn’t work on about ten different levels, but it does because Peters suddenly explodes with passion, vulnerability and deep sensuality. And suddenly a movie you could barely believe got released becomes something so intense and deeply personal that you can’t believe you’re watching it. And you realize, “that’s the audition scene,” that’s the scene that got her the part,” Fuller cast her because he knew she’d be able to sell the weirdest-ass scenes in the movie, the ones the narrative won’t work without. To give you an idea of how weird her scenes with Widmark are, imagine the famous encounter between Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe in Wild at Heart, but instead of Willem ending up with his head blown off outside a bank, Laura Dern runs off with him and it turns out he’s really a really sweet guy and a patriot to boot.

Fuller the filmmaker is no less idiosyncratic. He’ll mark time through any number of ho-hum procedural scenes, then uncork a fight scene as intense, frightening and real as anything in Raging Bull, or, conversely, he’ll ruin a beautiful death-bed monologue with an utterly unnecessary reaction shot, or spoil a love scene with a shot out of focus. It’s almost like he’s playing with you, lulling you into a false set of expectations, waiting for the next opportunity to blow your mind.

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7 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Pickup on South Street”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I was hoping you were going to watch some more Fuller. I recently caught up with his first two films — I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona — since they were just put out by Criterion’s Eclipse series (along with The Steel Helmet, which I’ve seen before, but should see again since it’s arguably his first masterpiece).

    I also caught Hell and High Water, which he made the year after Pickup and which was his first film in both Technicolor and Cinemascope. (Of course, that was on AMC, so the Cinemascope was out the window, but at least it was still in color.) Interestingly enough, Widmark’s character in that film is very much like the one he plays in this one: an opportunist out to make a quick buck who turns out to be more patriotic than even he realized.

  2. ghostgecko says:

    This looks interesting. It’s that sense of the director laughing at you as he messes with your mind that I love in movies (probably started with seeing Evil Dead). Noir’s good anyways – on a somewhat unrelated note, ever notice how fedoras are almost impossible to draw without good photo reference? Or maybe that’s just me.

  3. toliverchap says:

    Oh this is a good one. The guy’s a real anti-hero with all his talk about people waving the “god damned flag at him.” Have you seen another old noir called The Big Combo? It’s got Lee Marvin and was one that I found to be pretty good aswell.

    • craigjclark says:

      Actually, that was Lee Van Cleef in The Big Combo. Lee Marvin was in The Big Heat. Both good movies, but I much prefer The Big Combo. (Cornel Wilde as the tough, obsessive cop on the edge is a lot more convincing than Glenn Ford.)

      • toliverchap says:

        Hmmm that’s right. Guess I got the names reversed. Oh those noirs kind of blend together but I do remember enjoying them both.

        • craigjclark says:

          Tell me about it. I immersed myself in films noir — watching 16 of them over the course of two months — bookended by The Big Heat and The Woman in the Window. I had to take a little breather, but I’ll be jumping back into them soon.