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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The Naked Kiss

Samuel Fuller pushes the boundaries of what one normally thinks of as possible in movies. He combines thudding, flat-footed awkwardness and even occasional outright “bad” moviemaking with surreal flights of screen poetry, sometimes within the same scene, even in the same shot. One fight scene is shot as as a heated, subjective tumble, another is shot dispassionately from across the room, still a third is shot with modernist elegance. Equal parts squalid and elegant, tawdry and moralistic, it can be startling with its crudeness one moment and then give way to visionary craziness the next.  The clash of styles, tones and textures produces an unsettling, electric tension; one has no idea what is going to happen next.  What emerges is a movie of unique, dynamic life, almost unbearable in its rawness as it plunges its spear into the cerebral cortex of American life. Actors will be stiff and lifeless in one scene and then, seconds later, they will surge with feverish passion as they deliver jaw-droppers like “You’ll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare!” or “I’ve got no time to break in baby baggage!”

A Woman With A Past moves to a small town, anxious to start again, but wouldn’t you know it, No One Will Let Her Be and soon Her Past Catches Up With Her. All noir cliches, and yet this movie never feels cliched. Just when you think “Oh, I know what this is, it’s a ‘b’ movie, this’ll be fun” Fuller will pull some daring, shocking cinematic stunt, with seemingly no bottom to his bag of tricks.

There are any number of stunners in this piece, but my favorites are a late-night makeout session that moves from the couch of a suburban mansion to a gondola in Venice with no stops in between, a soul-searching colloquy between the protagonist and a dressing dummy and a musical number where the ex-prostitute sings like Mary Poppins to a room full of crippled children.

Constance Towers reminds me of Virginia Madsen as the crooked lady trying to go straight. Anthony Eisley, while not exactly “good,” has been given the task of pushing through an incredible arc as his attitudes toward the protagonist shift. He goes from cheerfully randy to puritanically prude to savagely protective to punishingly pigheaded until he finally arrives at something like understanding, forgiveness and tenderness.

The plot spirals downward into the bottommost pit of depravity, a potent stew of betrayal and hatred; it’s hard to remember that it is, forall intents and purposes, a “woman’s picture” plot in the Douglas Sirk mode. It also has one of the most effective gut-punching end-of-second-act curtains I’ve ever seen.
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