drive me back to my shack

New York’s Underworld Is World Class

Pickup on South Street. Photo: AF archive/Alamy

Samuel Fuller (1912–1997) became a newspaper copy boy when he was just 12. By the time he was 17, he was working the murder beat for the New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid so lurid it was known as the New York Pornographic. Fuller knew a good lede when he saw one.

It was a talent he carried over to a filmmaking career that saw him turn out 20 potboilers between 1949 and 1965, movies with testosterone-drizzled titles like The Steel Helmet (1951) and Forty Guns (1957). All of them had good ledes (just watch the beginning of The Naked Kiss). But for me, the first two minutes and 35 seconds of Pickup on South Street (1953) is the top, the best NYC-centric opening sequence in film history.

It’s rush hour on the uptown IRT on a hot summer day. The camera settles on a dark-haired woman in a tight white dress. Looking a little cheap, this is Candy (most Fuller heroines are named Candy or Muffin), played by Jean Peters, who would soon marry Howard Hughes. Sweating through the layered rouge on her cheeks, Candy stares off into space, unaware of the two men, cops, likely, watching her.

Then here he comes: Richard Widmark, in his fedora, making his way through the crowd of straphangers, on the hunt. The then-39-year-old actor plays Skip McCoy, a pickpocket by trade, or, in the vernacular of Fuller’s tabloid cosmos, a “cannon.” Skip moves close to Candy, near enough to grope her. A moll lost in her own problems, Candy doesn’t notice as Skip opens her pocketbook, his cat’s-paw fingertips casually rummaging through her intimate belongings. Landing on a billfold, he gently removes it from the bag using a folded newspaper to shield his mendacity. The train stops at 33rd Street, and before the two cops can react, Skip bounds out the subway door. Save the ever-present rumble of the train, Fuller’s lede plays out as a wordless dance of the Big City.

Soon enough, we’ll find out what happened. Unbeknownst to him, Skip has pilfered a piece of microfilm that contains a scientific formula. Holding it up to the light, Skip, a grifter since birth, can’t make heads or tails of it. One thing he does know is that he’s just made a score. If the piece of film wasn’t worth a lot, why would these strangers keep showing up unannounced at his East River hideout?

The pieces begin to fall together. It’s 1953, and the Russians have just exploded a bomb of their own. With Joe McCarthy riding high, Americans are seeing commie agents behind every telephone pole. In such circumstances, the justifiably paranoid mind naturally believes this snippet of film, stolen at random by a lowlife pickpocket, could decide the fate of the planet.

This kind of perfect pulp made Fuller — who was known to shoot a pistol with blanks in the air when calling “Action!” — a hero to the generation of French New Wave critics and filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. Fuller wasn’t simply another American director to these fans of the New York netherland; he was cinema itself.

Back in the 1970s, I once trekked to Laurel Canyon to interview Fuller at the home he shared with his wife Christa Lang, a onetime Seductress Third Class in Godard’s trench-coat vision of deep space, Alphaville (Akim Tamiroff dies in her arms). Yes, Fuller allowed, when I asked, that he was proud of the wordless opening sequence in Pickup on South Street and of making sure the subway lights flickered just as they did when he rode the train as a boy. But he balked at the assumption, then standard among film-studies mavens, that Pickup was a right-wing movie, one more salvo in Hollywood’s propaganda counterattack on godless Marxism-Leninism. The charge touched a nerve since six of the famous Hollywood Ten were, like Fuller himself, Jews. The careers of filmmakers like Abraham Polonsky, director of Force of Evil (1948), one of the finest New York noirs, had been devastated.

Jabbing his cigar through the air of his sitting room, Fuller said the idea of himself as some John Wayne Republican was sheer “crap.” Characters like Skip McCoy didn’t care about ideology. Their concerns were more street level. When Candy begs Skip (whom she’s now in love with) to take the $500 the spies are offering for the film, he makes a big show of it, screaming, “Tell your old lady I’m shaking down you Reds for 25 grand.” Likewise, when the FBI appeals to his sense of duty as an American citizen, he bristles, with “You’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eyewash.”

Then there’s Thelma Ritter. Born in Brooklyn in 1902 with the accent to prove it, Ritter was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Pickup on South Street, a rare Oscar nod for a Fuller picture. (Nominated six times, always in a supporting role, Ritter never won.) Here, she plays Moe, seller of dollar ties along the Dickensian Bowery who moonlights as a police informer. A repository of criminal ways and wiles, Moe doesn’t need to see a picture to finger Skip as the one who pilfered the microfilm; she only needs to hear how he holds his newspaper. Every subway cannon’s got his own style. Hearing Moe has sold him out for 50 bucks, Skip shrugs. She’s got to eat too.

In a memorable death scene, Moe is confronted by Joey, Candy’s abusive ex, who’s working as a Soviet flunky. Desperate to get the microfilm, Joey offers hundreds to find Skip, but Moe won’t say. Joey knows Moe will “sell anybody for buttons,” so what’s the big deal? What does she know about communists anyway? “I know one thing,” Moe replies. “I know I just I don’t like them.”

When it comes out that Joey has killed Moe, shooting her dead in her Bowery rented room, Skip’s sense of New York underworld solidarity is enraged. He chases after Joey, catching up with him on the subway. As a bookend to the wordless opener, Fuller shoots a scene of Skip using his cannon skills to disarm the unsuspecting Joey by lifting the commie stooge’s pistol and then following him into the Third Avenue station of what is now the L train. His gun gone, Joey attempts to escape, charging through the turnstile and trying to make it to the street. Skip tackles him, pulling him back down the stairs. As he does, Fuller makes sure the moviegoer sees Joey’s chin hit the edge of every step.

Thump. Thump. Thump: Now that’s a New York rhapsody if there ever was one.

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New York’s Underworld Is World Class