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Written by Timothy Sexton
Richard Widmark made an indelible mark upon audiences with his debut performance as the psychotic with a macabre penchant for laughing during his most violent behavior in Kiss of Death. He followed that up with a more complex delineation of an almost equally crazed low-life in The Street with No Name. The trajectory of Widmark’s career from those two memorably-explicit and outright crazy sadists to heroic good guy is one that traces a line straight through the pickpocket, Skip McCoy. Widmark’s trademark persona as a man who must consciously work to maintain a hold on a malicious impulse always lurking just below the sly, crooked smile carries forth from his early loons and right through the best of the good guys that made up the bulk of his career. The only real difference appears to be that his hold on malice grew tighter and it is in the character of Skip that it reached perfect equilibrium. McCoy is half-insolent, sneering spouse-abuser and half-American patriot doing his part to save the country from the dreaded commie conspiracy.
Winning a campus popularity that came with a prize of a Hollywood screen test transformed the striking Jean Peters from anonymity as an English teacher into briefly being married to the richest man in the world! Along the way, Peters made her longest lasting impact on Hollywood history as the would-be mule for Soviet spies whose purse becoming the target of a pickpocket sets off the chain of events that make up the narrative of Pickup on South Street. The film practically begins with a close-up of her sultry goods looks and doesn’t appear eager to stray too far from those features tailor-made for the movie camera. From 1956 through 1972, Jean Peters disappeared completely from movie screens and only appeared on TV when the late show was airing one of her old movies. That her long on-screen hiatus coincided with her marriage to billionaire Howard Hughes is not coincidental.
Thelma Ritter picked up her fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the police snitch Moe in Pickup on South Street. She would subsequently receive two more nominations in the same category, thus allowing the vagaries of history to sadly single her out for the dubious distinctions of not only being the actress to collect the most nominations in that category as of 2016 but of tying with Deborah Kerr as the most nominated actress never to actually take home an Oscar.
As Candy’s communist boyfriend who is using her as a mule to pass secrets to his Soviet bosses, Joey is given scenes to play out his role as a menace far more threatening to the social order than any mere petty pickpocket. Perhaps it says more than was intended about the actual threat of communist to the average American versus the actual threat of petty thugs that even when murdering the film’s most—actually, only—lovable character he still fails to be anywhere near as terrifying Skip McCoy. This lack of peril implied by Joey may have less to do themes of rea versus perceived threats than with the fact that actor Richard Kiley never for moment in his career projected the potential for a psychopathic explosion of violence that Richard Widmark divulged even when playing the hero. That absent of a natural and organic personality trait would serve Kiley well toward the end of his career when he seemed to be the narrator of practically every documentary to air on television in the 1980s and 1990s.
The part of the government agent charged with stopping the communist peril at its lowest street level was handed to character actor Willis Bouchey. During a career that began in middle-age and lasted a mere two decades, Bouchey would pretty much cover the waterfront when it came to playing law enforcement officer and others working within the judicial system. His natural sense of gravity and capacity to easily exude an air of authority made him the ideal choice for everything from tracking down commies like Joey to the judge that presided over 23 different cases eventually won by Perry Mason.
Capt. Dan Tiger
Aside from playing the character with the best name in the movie—hands down—Murvyn Vie also gets that rare honor of making an on-screen prediction about what happens to another character after the credits come to an end. Capt. Tiger predicts that despite having done his country a great service by helping to bring to justice some lousy commie rats, he is still the same person he was and will be back facing charges for picking pockets before too long. In a way, then, Murvyn Vie is also predicting a future for Richard Widmark, who was just so incredibly good at playing bad guys that it was inconceivable he would never become known mainly for playing the good guy. The jury is still out on what happened to Skip, of course, but he was 100% wrong about Widmark’s future.
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