September 17, 2008 -- I've been working my way through a list of classic film noir movies, and this is definitely one of the best I've seen so far. Like Out of the Past it has higher production values than most film noir fare and some top-notch stars, Hollywood legend Richard Widmark and Jean Peters. It also boasts one of the best writer-directors of his era, Sam Fuller (“The Big Red One” and “Steel Helmet”).
The iconclastic Fuller set out to make a movie with a pickpocket as his hero. His idea was that a pickpocket is more of an artist than a criminal. He also believed that there is a code of honor and a bond among thieves, whores, informants and others among the criminal underclass that is stronger than the bond among the members of some church congregations. This film idea was a tough sell in 1952, but luckily, Fuller had a powerful friend in the movie business, Daryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Films, a powerful Hollywood studio. Zanuck personally greenlighted the project, according to some interesting documentaries on the Criterion Collection DVD of the film. Fuller says in one interview that J. Edgar Hoover himself was involved in evaluating the film for its portrayal of law enforcement (Hoover did not like the film).
The film (released in 1953) opens with pickpocket Skip McCoy (played by Richard Widmark of “Coma”) stealing a billfold out of a woman's purse on a subway while some federal officers look on. The officers are tailing Candy (Jean Peters of “A Man Called Peter”) because she was carrying government classified secrets on microfilm in her purse. The idea was to catch the Communist agents she was supposed to deliver the microfilm to. Skip manages to grab the microfilm and elude the agents. The local cops help the feds find Skip with the aid of an informant named Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter of “The Birdman of Alcatraz”). By the time the feds catch up with Skip, he has already hidden the microfilm. The police offer Skip a deal. If he turns over the microfilm, they won't prosecute him for theft and they'll even expunge his record. But Skip is a tough cookie. He decides the microfilm must be worth a lot to somebody, so he decides to sell it to the Reds, if they will meet his price.
Skip is probably the toughest pickpocket you'll ever see. He shows little regard for his skilled hands while getting into several fist fights. He's not scared of the feds, the police, or the commies. Even Skip has his principles. If you hurt his friends, he won't go to the police or the feds, he will settle the score with you himself. There is even a real pickpocket in the movie, Victor Perry, who plays a small time gangster, Lightning Louie. According to one of the documentaries on the disk it sounds like Perry got the job as a favor for returning some items lifted from Fuller while he was researching pickpockets. The best scene in the movie, however, belongs to the great character actress Thelma Ritter. She delivers a devastating performance as a stool pigeon who won't sell out her friend Skip, no matter what price she has to pay for her stand.
The acting in the movie is quite good, especially by Ritter. So are the stunts and the camerawork by Joseph MacDonald (“Mackenna's Gold”). The story moves along briskly, and despite all its twists and turns, it is easy to follow. This is a classic in the film noir genre. Film noir (black film) is a very influential style of moviemaking featuring dark scenes, dark themes and flawed characters from the seamy underbelly of society, crooked cops, murderous crooks and dangerous dames. This film rates a B+.
The Criterion Collection DVD has a number of special features, including an interview with Sam Fuller, another presentation by Fuller on this film originally televised in France, a biographical essay on Fuller, a “poster filmography” of Fuller's films, photos, lobby cards and original artwork and trailers for eight Fuller films. There is also a 20-page booklet on Fuller and his films. As usual, the video quality of this Criterion Collection disk is impeccable.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.