Pickup on South Street (1953) – Samuel Fuller

Jean Peters sizzles in this spy/crime film noir that is another film mentioned in Philip Kemp’s Movies book. It also falls into the category of how had I never heard of this film before? As it ticks a lot of my boxes, spies, film noir… it’s a corker!

Candy (Peters) is on the subway, and has a wallet lifted from her purse by pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) – who despite his sharp clothes lives in a bait shack on the river front. Nice work if you can get it, but I’m sure the place must smell.

Unbeknownst to Candy, the wallet, belonging to her ex-fella, Joey (Richard Kiley), contains plans that are going to be slipped behind the Iron Curtain.  You see, Joey is a Communist agent, and is using Candy to smuggle his secrets.

Agent Zara (William Bouchey) saw the whole thing, and has Skip hauled in by the local PD, who first attempt to lean on him, and then attempt to push the patriotic angle. Neither of which take.

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Joey meanwhile, tells Candy she has to track down whoever lifted the wallet, and get it back, or more specifically the film within the wallet. Candy sets out, and pays off a stoolie, Moe (Thelma Ritter in an Oscar nominated performance) to learn who Skip is, and where she can find him.

The pair find themselves trapped between the law and the communist spy ring with neither being sure that they can trust the other, and unsure if the feelings developing between then are real or not.

What plays out is a crisp little thriller with hard-edges that makes it’s female characters thankfully as tough as the males, and shows that even the criminal element of America is better than those no good commies.

Widmark and Peters make a good onscreen pair, and their chemistry is very believable, even when their characters aren’t sure about the other’s motivations themselves. I think my only real qualm with the film is that it is too short, only running an hour and twenty minutes. There could have been more character and relationship building, and more of Moe as far s I’m concerned, Ritter was fabulous in this role.

This, for me, will be one of those films that caught me completely by surprise, and it boggles my mind that I had never even heard of it before I leafed through the pages of Kemp’s book.

That’s the great thing about books on cinema, they may be filled with titles you’ve already watched and written about, but every now and then, they’ll sneak in a title and you’ll be “How the hell have I never seen this one?”

Film noir fans take note, and if you have any recommendations let me know!

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