Pickup on South Street (1953)

Pickup On South Street, Sam Fuller. The Cold War meets film noir in this classic potboiler set in early 1950s New York. The main character, named Skip McCoy, is a pick-pocket with a face full of mean angles who doesn’t fight the bad guys for god and country but because he’s fallen for the pout-mouthed femme fatale with one name (‘Candy’—delicious), who turns out to have a heart of gold. He lives, totally improbably, in an old bait shack on the East River, and keeps his beer cold in a crate. The dialogue is mid-century crime Americana at its best: pickpockets are ‘canons’, the lead detective is nicknamed Tiger, and turn this phrase: ‘that muffin you grifted’. The low life patter is aided by the camerawork: lots of dolly shots rolling into and out of character faces as revelations unfold. Actress Thelma Ritter nearly steals the show as the professional stoolie ‘Moe’ – her death scene speech is straight out of Chandler’s hard-boiled playbook and Ritter cuts the bitterness with just the right amount of sweet . The big band soundtrack swings from smoochie to mysterious to melodramatic and back without missing a beat and is perfectly mixed with the visuals, enhancing without being obtrusive.  In his recent unauthorized biography of Tom Waits, Barney Hoskyns notes that the song ‘Potter’s Field’, from the 1977 album Foreign Affairs, was inspired by POSS, which Waits supposedly watched in a motel on late night TV during a tour. The sound of the film, and the phrase ‘potter’s field’, as well as some characters and narrative twists, all resonate in Wait’s cinematic song.

Here’s Luc Sante’s (a saint to me) essay about POSS on the Criterion Collection website: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/311

Period trailer:


Tom Waits ‘Potter’s Field’:


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