When the film was released, reviews were somewhat mixed. Bosley Crowther wrote,
- "It looks very much as though someone is trying to out-bulldoze Mickey Spillane in Twentieth Century-Fox's Pickup on South Street, ...this highly embroidered presentation of a slice of life in the New York underworld not only returns Richard Widmark to a savage, arrogant role, but also uses Jean Peters blandly as an all-comers' human punching-bag. Violence bursts in every sequence, and the conversation is slangy and corrupt. Even the genial Thelma Ritter plays a stool pigeon who gets her head blown off...Sensations he has in abundance and, in the delivery of them, Mr. Widmark, Miss Peters, Miss Ritter and all the others in the cast do very well. Murvyn Vye, as a cynical detective, is particularly caustic and good, and several other performers in lesser roles give the thing a certain tone."
The staff at Variety magazine said of the film,
- "If Pickup on South Street makes any point at all, it's that there is nothing really wrong with pickpockets, even when they are given to violence, as long as they don't play footsie with Communist spies...Film's assets are partly its photography, which creates an occasional tense atmosphere, and partly the performance of Thelma Ritter, the only halfway convincing figure in an otherwise unconvincing cast...Widmark is given a chance to repeat on his snarling menace characterization followed by a look-what-love-can-do-to-a-bad-boy act as Widmark's hard-boiled soul melts before Peters' romancing."
In recent years, critical appraisals of Pickup have warmed considerably. The movie has an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert regards Pickup as one of Fuller's "noir classics."
Rick Thompson suggests that, Pickup may have been the basis of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959), with which it shares many themes,
- "...including the death of the mother-figure; the hero's problem making commitment to the potential lover; a series of philosophical dialogues between the hero and his police antagonist; the interlinking of pickpocketing and sexuality; and the construction of the pickpocket hero as an extreme and deliberate outsider."
- Academy Awards: Oscar, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Thelma Ritter, 1954.
- Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion, Samuel Fuller, 1954.