Politics on South Street

Turner Classic Movies has a show called “Noir Alley.” It airs around midnight on Saturday/Sunday.

The show presents movies from the film noir genre. Some are classics, many are quite good, and nearly all are worth watching.

Eddie Muller hosts “Noir Alley.” He deserves great credit for presenting these films, some of which he helped restore, to television audiences and at film festivals. Muller also provides useful and sometimes fascinating information about the movies’ back stories and those of its actors, directors, and other contributors.

Unfortunately, Muller also offers political commentary, invariably from a left-liberal perspective. He seldom misses an opportunity to praise actors and directors who were blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with Congress’s investigation of communists in the film industry, and to make known his disapproval of those who did cooperate.

A while back, Muller presented “White Heat,” the classic Jimmy Cagney gangster film. In his introduction, Muller noted that when “White Heat” was released (1949), anti-communist hysteria had caused a shift in Hollywood’s treatment of gangsters. Once, movies tended to depict their criminality as arising from economic conditions. But in “White Heat,” Cagney’s criminality stemmed from psychological causes, not poverty.

Muller seemed to lament this shift. But poverty cannot explain psychopathic criminality. Few poor people become psychopaths. “White Heat” would have been a ridiculous film if it had tried to root Cagney’s behavior in economic conditions.

After the movie, Muller read excerpts of a review of “White Heat” by someone who had been blacklisted. Muller treated the review reverentially, going so far as to post its text on the television screen. He concluded his reading by exclaiming “Wow.”

But the review Muller gushed about treated “White Heat” as a critique of capitalism — precisely the reading Muller had rejected in his introduction. Thus, we were treated to leftist analysis both coming and going, and with no regard for consistency.

Last night, Muller presented another noir classic, “Pickup on South Street.” I looked forward to this for days, mostly because it’s one of my favorite films, but also because I was interested in how Muller would deal with the obvious anti-communism of the movie.

The villains in “Pick Up on South Street” are communists. They are trying to retrieve film of top secret information that a pickpocket (played by Richard Widmark) inadvertently swiped.

The main communist in the movie is vicious. He beats his ex-girlfriend (played by Jean Peters) and kills the most endearing character in the movie (an old lady played by the great Thelma Ritter) in cold blood.

The Ritter and Peters characters both make their contempt for communism plain, and the authorities repeatedly refer to the communists as “traitors.” The movie isn’t about communism, but it is certainly anti-communist.

So I wondered how Muller would play his commentary. I doubted that he would have any use for the movie’s anti-communism, but I also doubted that he would criticize “Pickup on South Street” and its writer-director Samuel Fuller, an icon of the cinema.

How did Muller attempt to square this circle? He denied that the film is anti-communist. Muller claimed that Fuller eschewed ideology in the film.

To support this claim, Muller relied on the Widmark character. And it’s true that the pickpocket is non-ideological. He’s willing to sell the film with state secrets back to the Reds, and he pooh-poohs talk of patriotism and treason.

But the Widmark character is not the moral center of the movie. The moral center is the Peters character, the one-time girlfriend of the communist who falls in love with the pickpocket and, in the end, guides him to a new life.

This character hates communism. She’s disgusted when she finds that her ex is a communist and appalled with the Widmark character when she learns that he will do business with the commies.

As noted, the Ritter character is also anti-communist. She makes ends meet by selling information to anyone who will pay for it, but she won’t deal with the communists.

Muller tried to bolster his claim that “Pickup on South Street” is ideologically neutral by noting that J. Edgar Hoover disapproved of the film. He objected to the Widmark character’s lack of patriotism and his willingness to deal with the commies.

Hoover wanted the movie changed accordingly, but Fuller refused and studio head Darryl Zanuck backed his director, not the FBI’s. As a result, according to Muller, the studio, 20th Century Fox, no longer received favorable treatment from the FBI.

But the fact that “Pickup on South Street” wasn’t anti-communist enough for Hoover doesn’t mean it wasn’t anti-communist. Making the Widmark character a patriot would have ruined the movie, depriving it of dramatic tension and rendering it cartoonish.

Fuller, of course, wouldn’t go that far, but neither would he eliminate anti-communism from the film. As Muller acknowledged, Fuller objected vigorously when the French, under the influence of the Communist Party, wanted to change the villains from communists to members of an organized crime outfit.

“Pickup on South Street” isn’t about anti-communism, and its anti-communism certainly does not dominate the movie. But it is part of the film — an important enough part that Fuller insisted that it not be removed.

I’ll close by recommending “Pickup on South Street” to readers who have never seen it. I’ll also recommend “Noir Alley,” notwithstanding Muller’s political commentary.