When I reviewed Adam’s Rib, I pointed out how a film–even one with a glorious cast–can be utterly ruined when the message gets in the way of the story. Now let’s have a look at one that sends a message but is still amazing.
Pickup on South Street is a film I’d never heard of until I got my copy of the 1001 films book. And if I tell you the way it works out, you’ll think it was a McCarthy-era, commie-scare piece of political propaganda with zero redeeming traits. So here goes: it’s basically about a pickpocket who redeems himself by breaking up a communist spy ring in New York.
Pure cold-war jingoism, right?
Wrong. It’s a fun spy flick in an unforgettable 1950s New York setting, where the communists are, while watching, incidental in the plot. The plot needed some spies, and the spies in the post-Nazi era were communists.
Yes, I agree that the impact of the message might have been blunted by the fact that communists, like Nazis, make for excellent bad guys. Totalitarian regimes which hate any sort of individuality are always nice to make fun of. But the film rises above that, not breaking stride to moralize about the evils of the reds… it tells the story in much the same way a crime movie would, without stopping to preach.
And that’s what makes this movie. Its message is powerfully delivered precisely because it doesn’t beat you over the head with it… and it makes you wonder: how the hell did the people making The Last Jedi and other modern preach-fests forget this lesson? I suspect the arrogance of the modern political elites makes them think that they can preach at the audience without having their films lambasted as imbecilic. They are wrong, and at least part of Hollywood knew it in the 50s.
And just how huge is the message they managed to hide in this one?
It’s enormous, but you need to know a little about Hollywood back then to grasp it. In the 50s, the Hays Code was still going strong, which meant that you couldn’t have a happy ending for a criminal. Well, in this one, the protagonist robs a purse, beats a woman, lies to the cops and tries to extort a bunch of money from the communist gang… and in the end, walks free (and gets the girl–the same one he spent half the film slapping around).
So WHY does he get a happy ending? Because all of his crimes are offset by the glory of having destroyed a communist spy ring. It’s really that simple.
But despite the utter lack of subtlety of the political message it never, not once, gets in the way of the storytelling and the art of this film.
And that, my friends, is how it’s done. Highly recommended.
Gustavo Bondoni in a novelist and short story writer own version of an edgy, modern thriller is entitled Timeless. You can check it out here.