The failure of anti-communist films and Pickup on South Street (1953)

One film which broke the anti-communist mould was Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

In the early 1950s, conservative forces in Hollywood began to see that their anti-communist cinematic efforts had been failures.  The films were not popular at the box office and the critical responses were poor or weak. During the Second World War, the reverse was true. Hollywood had made many popular anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese films during the Second World War at a furious pace.  There were no anti-communist equivalents of Casablanca or Mrs Miniver. Somehow these anti-communist films did not work.  My Son John had an established and acclaimed director in Leo McCarey working from his own script, its main star Robert Walker was still basking in his triumph of Strangers On A Train, the celebrated stage actress Helen Hayes had returned to the screen to play John’s mother and Dean Jagger had recently won an academy award for Twelve O’Clock High (1950), yet the film was a complete disaster.  Accoldades were in short supply. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did nominate McCarey for an Oscar for Writing (Motion Picture Story). Even with the star power of John Wayne, Big Jim McLain, was the twenty-seventh most successful film of 1952, grossing $2,600,000. 

The reasons for their failure lay elsewhere. When Cecil B. DeMille was appointed to the State Department’s International Motion Picture Unit as a consultant to make cold war films in 1953, he decried the lack of support for anti-communist pictures.

The American Government would not arm its soldiers with guns made by amateurs.  Neither should it arm … (the State) Department with films by amateurs.[1]

DeMille claimed that the Soviet Union had spent $14 billion on propaganda while the United States spent $75 million.  The Soviet Union was producing better propaganda than the United States.  He argued that more resources were needed to win the propaganda cold war.  Yet the studios had poured in considerable resources for anti-communist films and none had worked.  The films were not allocated second rate talent.  Directors William Wellman, Gordon Douglas, Leo McCarey, William Dietrele, William Cameron Menzies, Elia Kazan, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Josef von Sternberg and others represent a group of highly talented people.  It was not the lack of talent which caused their failure or the pace at which they were cranked out by the studios. 

After the release of Walk East on Beacon and other anti-communist efforts, the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther lashed out at Hollywood for its failure to make effective anti-communist films.  He argued that the United States was in a state of confusion and anxiety over the threat of communism and he wanted Hollywood to ‘clarify the realities of the situation and the true extent of domestic peril.’  Crowther thought that the plots of the film were reworkings of old ideas and reflected a deeper problem in the film industry.

(In Hollywood) no one, resenting aspersions, dares raise a clear contentious voice.  Caution is king.  Intellectually Hollywood is paralyzed.

In this grave state of apprehension, it isn’t likely that the people out there are going to come through with any … literal dramatization of the actual shape of the Communist peril.  Indeed it is not very likely that anyone will henceforth want to touch the subject of communism with a ten foot pole.  Not only is it ticklish as a topic, but pictures about it have proved conspicuously unbefitting as far as the paying public is concerned.[2]

One film which broke the anti-communist mould was Samuel Fuller’s Pick Up on South Street (1953).  It was not an easy film to make. According to Lisa Dombrowsi, in her book The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill you, the script ran afoul of the the PCA, for “excessive brutality and sadistic beatings, of both men and women”. Although a revised script was accepted soon after, the studio was forced to shoot multiple takes of a particular scene in which the manner of Jean Peters and Richard Kiley frisk each other for loot was considered too risqué.

The film begins when a pickpocket Skip McCoy, played by Richard Widmark, stole some microfilm from the purse of Candy, the former mistress of communist Joey. The film contained a secret chemical formulae and Candy attempted to get the film back from McCoy for the psychopathic Joey.  She falls in love with McCoy whole doing so, but McCoy was not interested and wanted to sell the microfilm back to the communists for $25,000.  He eventually also falls in love with Candy, but only after he found out that she would not betray him to the communists.  He was enraged when Candy was beaten and shot by Joey.  He followed Joey and dealt out a savage beating in revenge.

McCoy was not interested in seeking revenge until he has his own personal motives to do so.  When an FBI agent asked him, ‘Do you know what Communism is?’ Skip replies ‘Who cares?’  They press him to act out of patriotic motives and he refused.

McCoy was not interested in seeking revenge until he has his own personal motives to do so. It is his love for Candy – not his political interests – that drive his revenge.

Detective:  If you refuse to co-operate you’ll be as guilty as those traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb

McCoy:  Are you waving the flag at me?[3]

Fuller later argued that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had lunch with him and studio head Zanuck, and was told that he detested Fuller’s work and especially Pickup on South Street. Hoover particuarly did not like Widmark’s character saying “Are you waving the flag at me?”, He did not approve of the the scene of a Federal agent bribing an informer and other things. “Zanuck backed Fuller up, telling Hoover he knew nothing about making movies, but removed references to the FBI in the film’s advertising.” It is simple to identify Hoover’s annoyance. McCoy was only interested in money.  He said to Candy: ‘So you are Red.  Who cares?  Your money is as good as anybody’s.’  The film was a clear break from any other anti-communist film of the time.  Indeed it turned everything on its head.  The criminal world looked down on communism.  Moe, who informed on Skip for $50 to the police, refused to give Skip’s address to the communists because ‘even in our crumby kind of business, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere’.[4]  Moe doesn’t even know why she doesn’t like communism.  She says ‘What do I know about commies? Nothing? I know I just don’t like them.’[5]

Most other anti-communist films defended the role of the informer.  In Pickup On South Street, the stance on informing was reversed.

Director Sam Fuller was laughing at the seriousness of patriotic films and in doing so produced one of the most eccentric and individual anti-communist films of the 1950s.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster
Moe: Some people peddle apples, lamb chops, lumber.  I peddle information.  Skip ain’t sore.  He understands.  We live in a different kind of world.  Once in while he gets how under the collar if I sell him short.
Candy: But you wouldn’t sell him to a commie.
Moe: What do you think I am?  An informer?[6]

Moe was in informer to the police and yet despised informers to communists.  The hero of this film was a unrepentant and unpatriotic criminal.  The law enforcement agencies appeared to be flat-footed and easily misled by the criminals.  The police even needed informers like Moe to round up suspects.  Fuller was laughing at the seriousness of patriotic films and in doing so produced one of the most eccentric and individual anti-communist films of the 1950s. The communism angle is so slight that when the movie was released in France, the dubbed soundtrack changed the villains from communist spys to drug dealers. The French title “Le port de la drogue” can be translated as “Pier of Drugs”. [7] 

Fuller repeated the formula of personal, rather than political revenge, with Richard Widmark leading a submarine in Chinese controlled waters, in Hell And High Water (1954).  Widmark was a mercenary who would sell his services to the highest bidder.  The submarine crew uncovered a plot by the Chinese to have a disguised B29 drop atomic bombs on Manchuria to blame the United States for starting a nuclear war.  Widmark couldn’t care less until his most loyal crew member was killed by a communist prisoner.  Only after his friend’s, did he become committed to stopping the communist plot.  Critic Nicholas Garnham argued that ‘the Fuller protagonist is always caught in a crossfire between warring totalitarian organizations.’  Pickup on South Street finished 62nd in the Variety rankings for 1953.[8]


[1] Hollywood Reporter, 6 October 1953.

[2] New York Times, 8 June 1952.

[3] Pick-Up On South Street, (d) Samuel Fuller, (w) Samuel Fuller.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] For a discussion of Fuller’s anti-communism and his views on national identity see Nicholas Garham, Fuller, Secker and Warburg in association with the British Film Institute, 1971, pp. 106 – 133.

[8] Variety, 6 January 1954.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s