Most of Samuel Fuller’s best films have the sturdy frame of a B-movie, but with a much wilder interior—and that’s certainly the case with 1953’s Pickup On South Street, which starts out like a grubby little crime picture and then gets bigger and crazier. Richard Widmark plays a pickpocket who inadvertently takes microfilm containing state secrets; Thelma Ritter (whose day it is today on Turner Classic Movies) plays a police informant working to get the film back, initially more for the payoff than for patriotic reasons. Though unusually frank (for 1953 anyway) about the world of crooks, hookers, and shakedown artists, what really makes Pickup On South Street a classic is how these underworld characters bump up against spies and Communists, with everyone involved highly motivated to get their way, but for different reasons. Fuller packs a lot of characters and a lot of incident into 80 minutes, and is just as interested in the mechanics of pickpocketing as he is the global political situation that’s putting all of these pieces in motion. Pickup On South Street airs on TCM at 10 p.m. Eastern.
August 20, 2014 newsreel