Sixty-plus years on, Pickup on South Street still packs a punch. Having watched it for about the fourth time last night, I'm amazed at how much depth and detail emerges in subsequent viewings.
Without giving the story away, it begins with a young woman being robbed by a seasoned pickpocket on a crowded New York subway. Unfortunately for her it's not just money that's in her purse, but what she thinks are industrial secrets she's hauling as a good-bye favor for her latest ex-boyfriend. But the truth is much, much heavier: she's an unwitting bit player in the early stages of the Cold War. So now everyone's after the pickpocket: the ex-boyfriend, communists agents, the NYPD, and of course the FBI. With a plot this convoluted it could almost have been played as a screwball comedy, but in the capable hands of Sam Fuller it turns into noir at its finest.
The main characters are extremely flawed but yet still likable: Richard Widmark as the three time loser pickpocket who'll be locked up for life if he gets one more conviction; Jean Peters as the not-too-bright woman caught in the middle of all this; Thelma Ritter as the stoolie with a heart of gold; and of course the usual cast of cops and bad guys. Every character has a past (even the good guys), everybody's got something driving them. This movie's got character texture galore, you can almost chew it. Perhaps the most striking part is how there are the good guys, the sorta-bad guys, and then the really bad guys, and how when push comes to shove the sorta-bads have a line in the sand they just won't cross. Several lines, in fact. It makes these characters even more fascinating. Even minor one-scene characters like "Lighting Louie" (and his chopsticks) stand out.
This is some of Sam Fuller's best. Recommended! 3.5 out of 4 stars.
Here, watch the trailer at youtube.
You can read more on it at Wikipedia, but be forewarned that there are spoilers in that write-up. If this review has you wanting to see the movie, just go see the movie. You can always pick at the details later.