Pickup on South Street
seen online via YouTube
OMG HERE COME THE COMMIES TO SUCK OUR BRAINS AND RAPE OUR WOMEN!!! We used to be paranoid as hell about Communists, didn't we? It's hard to believe, for even people of my generation, the level of fear created around the Red scare during the Cold War years. I grew up during the Reagan years, so of course I remember all the "Evil Empire" rhetoric, coupled as it was with the threat of nuclear war, which came as much from our side as the Russians' side. And as I've discussed before, none of that ever felt that real to me as a child.
Still, if I knew nothing about Communism, and I watched a movie like Pickup on South Street, I would be no smarter on the subject. Don't get me wrong; I liked this movie, but it bothered me that there was so much talk about the Commies and how dangerous they are but no one - absolutely no one - bothered to define what it is, even though one of the pivotal characters is a Communist. I suspect this isn't at all unique to this movie, but it was more noticeable for me here than at any other time.
Maybe some historical perspective might help? Pickup on South Street was released in 1953. During this time the Korean War wound down (there's a passing reference to the war in the movie); Senator Joseph McCarthy was still going after Commies with his hearings, though President Eisenhower finally started to oppose him when McCarthy investigated the military; Joseph Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev took over the Soviet Union; the CIA helped orchestrate the overthrow of the Iranian government; and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. Definitely a tumultuous year.
Given all of that, you'd think a movie that deals with the threat of Communism (however indirectly) might reflect the state of affairs in the world and at least attempt to provide some perspective on it all. Pickup isn't a propaganda film, nor is it a political thriller, but it does have a major character who's a Communist, with a Macguffin that affects the course of the entire story, and I think it's unfortunate that he doesn't get to express his political beliefs at least once.
Richard Widmark's grifter anti-hero scoffs at the patriotic notions displayed by the law-enforcement characters as they try and get him to cooperate, which suits him, since by his own admission he's a three-time loser looking to get by any way he can. He also says he's not above dealing with a Red, which we're clearly meant to take as one more sign of his depravity and desperation.
I read about Pickup at a very good film noir blog called Where Danger Lives, which made me want to see it. I enjoyed seeing Thelma Ritter, who was so delightful in All About Eve, play a more serious character here. The level of violence was a bit disturbing for me; people get really smacked around and roughed up here, which I suppose is par for the course in a noir, but I admit it still took me by surprise.
Anybody have any memories of the Cold War from an everyday perspective? My memories have gotten fuzzier with age, and since I was a kid, it's not like they stick out anyway.