Two Sam Fuller films this week for Midnight Screenings, one from the very beginning of his career and one from the mature, weary Fuller nearing his end.
When Pickup on South Street begins, contorted, confrontational eyes are already prowling, lurking, and snapping at one another in a sweatily-packed train. We do not know who is who, and the film relies on that fact, as well as director Samuel Fuller’s acid-tinged eye for the jungle gyms of human collectivity. Scrawled into the film in harsh black-and-white lines by Fuller, a train is an accident waiting to happen, a self-immolating battering ram to the backside of the human ego. There is no community on the train. Just competing interests and faces that almost shout about how they would rather be anywhere else, or anyone else.
What unfolds on the train beyond the eyes almost doesn’t matter. The eyes combat with one another, and the act of staring becomes the most vicious thing a human could possibly do to another member of the species. This is the Samuel Fuller style, and just a year after Park Row, he was already expanding and perfecting it. The components? Lean, mean, brutal efficiency, where every edit whips and every shot crackles, and where minimalism serves as a scalpel to human complacency. At a violent 80 minutes (violent in its punishing brevity), the film isn’t much for blood, but every moment feels like a punch. It teeters on the brink, and all the film can do is pray not to fall over. Except there is no praying in Samuel Fuller’s world. Just pretending to live, and dying.
Despite its brevity, quite a lot unfurls within the rusty cage that is Pickup. Amidst the tectonic scrawl of that opening, we emerge with a bevy of characters. Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) who has stolen Candy’s (Jean Peters’) wallet, and Candy who was delivering that wallet, containing government information, to her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), who is actually a spy unbeknownst to Candy. We have Zara (Willis Bouchey), an American agent who was tailing Candy in hopes of following her to Joey or his employers, a task he needs help with, so he involves Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Tye) and informant Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter, stealing scenes left and right with a clipped, surviving woman who bests any man around her for commitment and sinuous versatility). Eventually, McCoy clues into the communist angle, and he does the most American thing of all: not standing up for any moral cause for or against communism, but instead playing for himself with a capitalist’s eye for making a buck at anyone’s expense.
Which makes Pickup a phenomenally dense, clattering clap-trap of a film, but it pauses for no human being. Fuller’s dialogue attains a percussive tempo, unfolding with a metronomic regularity that buttons down the hatches of the bedlam just begging to destroy the life of everyone involved. Until, of course, the endless barrage of bile-spewing dialogue becomes its own entropy, hurtling off-screen with enough propulsion to ensure that no character can escape its grasp. It is as if the dialogue is a coil of whips lashing out in every direction, hoping to land at the right volcanic combination of human ids so as to tether them together, draw them in toward each other, and implode the world around them.
Fuller’s film isn’t all dialogue though; the reporter still dormant in him, Fuller understands everyday visual economy and the startling potency of image as much as his tempest of words (gloriously husky noirish cinematography from the perpetually underrated Joseph Macdonald certainly doesn’t hurt). The most pressing character interactions, like the opening scene, occur with each word replaced by a sideways glare of the eye. The images have a harsh clarity to them, and Fuller displays a command of focus and restraint that becomes almost sadistic as the film moves forward. He gives us no time to dally from spot to spot or explore the milieu of the world; these are people who have to move to survive, and the development of their personhoods is subservient to their functionality in a mechanical plot much larger than them. The lack of character development becomes its own hard-boiled commentary on the lack of character in a world where humans have been reduced to “getting the job done”, rushing from action to action without any sense of purpose or feeling about those actions. Pickup is a quintessential atom-bound noir then, with the whirlwind of everyday life happening around and behind the characters – people occupy the frame at every moment, with background characters walking into the picture and out again – but none of the characters are ever able to actually stop and notice the people because they are too busy just trying to not die.
A Samuel Fuller film moves then, and it moves so much that its excision of any material that is not absolutely essential to the film is both refreshing and thrillingly dangerous. Pickup unfolds with laser-like precision and self-confidence, but it seems to have no ego, as judged by its total commitment to cutting out any extraneous material; unlike most films, it won’t afford itself the leisure time to bask in its own glory. It is totally and completed committed to each moment of its existence, to suggestion and perverse implication with wiry, thin, guerrilla storytelling such that the lack of exposition and pause becomes a gateway into the hurtling non-lives of its characters. We feel like stopping might turn their hearts off; their endless movement is the only thing keeping them from realizing they have nothing left to live for, as a heartrending scene with Thelma Ritter reveals. Take a look at John Wick for a modern successor to the style, albeit a successor hopped up on blood-lust. It is an extension of Fuller’s work, telling a tale about a man whose soul has been left at home, and all he cares to do is kill.
Pickup is a work of pure spit. It lives about the gutter and wears a muckraker’s sense of inflammatory sensationalism; it is fire-and-brimstone filmmaking of the highest order. Fuller would refine his astringent craft over time, but he was always a fringe-dweller, and like an alley cat, he was at his most pointed waiting on the fringes, always ready to pounce. Pickup on South Street vacillates between low-to-the-ground grease fire and polluted, radioactive shriek, but it is always in full on Mr. Hyde mode, evoking a world in which everyone’s Dr. Jekyll ran away long ago. It is a cat hiss of a film.