26 January 2011

Pickup on South Street

I have really mixed feelings on this one, to be honest. I like the tone of the story and the world that's set up, and I enjoy the performances of the pickpocket Skip and Moe the snitch, but the cops and feds and commies -- and the "muffin," Candy -- barely register. It's hard to determine who the real protagonist is, which might be interesting in an espionage-laden crime noir about some accidentally stolen government microfilm, but it would necessitate all players to be as much fun to watch as only some of them are. Whenever the story cuts back to Joe and his Red conspirators, or to Captain Tiger and the authorities, the story loses all its steam instantly. Candy is interesting, but her part is undercooked -- she has no real reason to get so deeply involved in the first place, and too much of her motivation in the second half is dependent on that old movieland fall-back, Love At First Sight. Since it never feels quite logical, it never carries the weight it's meant to in the story. In fact, that Skip and Candy get each other in the end doesn't even seem to matter. On that note, I'm not sure I would've been very disappointed if Skip had been caught, or Candy killed, or hell, if the Reds had gotten away scot-free. Realizing how little I've invested in any of the players, even my favorites (though I suppose it's a shame Moe had to die), doesn't help me build a case for liking this film much.

But I have to admit, I do kind of like it. It's got that raw Fuller energy that nobody else had back then, like an indie filmmaker fifty years before the term was invented. It's not that he's making b-movies, though he obviously uses some b-movie actors and techniques, it's just that he's making movies cheaper and looser than the era was used to, and getting away with more. I do like the world set up here, and I have a feeling there's some straight lines to be drawn between the cops-and-robbers seediness of Pickup and the French New Wave films of someone like Melville or maybe Truffaut.

The film presents us with a world that's concise and sharp, with fun (probably made-up) slang like "cannon" and "muffin," where every single pickpocket working has a "signature move" and if you want to know who robbed you, you just buy a tie from the crazy lady (and the hoods don't begrudge her her snitching, seeing it rather as all part of the cops-and-robbers game). It's just that the players in this particular game aren't very exciting. And the stakes of the game (I know, I know, national security and the red scare and all that) aren't really used to any emotional end. In Shock Corridor all the American History stuff stood for deeper psychic pains in both the inmates and the world as a whole; but here the same kinds of elements feel like they exist just as an excuse for one team to distrust the other, almost as a cheapening of the politics, as if to say: reds vs yanks, it's no different than the cops and crooks in our silly action movies. I guess I see (and totally agree) with the point, but it's not a very strong one, and I'm not even positive it's intentional.

Anyway, I can't hate it, but I don't love it. Which made it an ideal choice to rewatch while I work (though the movie got a lot more attention than my work did).

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