I am ambivalent about Pickup On South Street. Somehow the gestalt is off: the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.
A weak story is propped up by Sam Fuller’s spirited direction and strong performances from the two female leads. Thelma Ritta received a deserved Academy Award Nomination for her role as the bag lady with soul. Jean Peters is great as the gutsy B-girl, and Richard Widmark makes the sparks fly in his scenes with Peters. The repartee in Fuller’s script is great and adds to the enjoyment. But I was left flat by the pat resolution and feel-good ending.
While Pickup On South Street is not readily identifiable as a noir as it does not follow the genre’s conventions, there is a noir sensibility. Flawed characters are portrayed sympathetically and redeemed by their essential humanity. As Fuller said in a 70s interview, he is not really concerned with the wider “reds under the bed” plot, but with how the drama of the lives affected plays out.
But the flaws in the film are there and limit its impact. The strongest scene in the film should have been when the bag-lady, Moe, confronted late at night in her apartment by the commie stooge, goes into a relatively long monologue on her fate. An excellent performance by Thelma Ritta is undermined by an unconvincing delay, as the stooge waits for her to finish her story (which he is patently not interested in) before plugging her.
Recommended but over-rated.