From what I’ve been able to determine, the idea that Robert Bresson may have taken inspiration from Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) when he made Pickpocket (1959) is tenuous at best. The films do share a number of affinities, beyond being probably the two most famous movies about pickpockets. But their styles contrast in myriad ways. Bresson didn’t bear the influence of the film noir tradition, turning instead to Italian neorealism. He consciously avoided giving his film the kind of Hollywood punch at which Fuller excelled. In considering the two films side by side, we find a similar upward trajectory for their protagonists, though only in Bresson is the prospect of spiritual epiphany broached. Each man finds himself changed through the influence of a woman, though the women represent a particularly blunt example of the madonna-whore dichotomy. What Fuller and Bresson have in common is sympathy for their small-time criminal characters, who do what they do so they can eat, to satisfy a compulsion, and simply because they’re good at it.
Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) and Michel (Martin LaSalle) are introduced in their respective films silently swiping the contents from a woman’s wallet, escaping undetected, and then getting apprehended anyway. Despite their skills, each man ends up in prison multiple times, but in Skip’s case, at least this one time, the arrest is a fluke: he has unwittingly intercepted the film’s MacGuffin. Skip and Michel stash their meager prizes in their humble dwellings — for Skip, a rickety fishing shack, and for Michel, a sparse apartment with a door he can’t lock from the outside. Already, the films diverge in key ways, as Pickup on South Street has identified plot mechanics that will grind throughout its running time, but Pickpocket has contented itself with presenting a way of being. Bresson’s film looks at the consequences of a man’s personal choices, while Fuller’s shows his man getting caught up in a combustible situation that doesn’t have anything to do with him.
Performance and direction differ greatly, as well. Fuller’s earthy approach gives us Widmark in sweat-glazed close-ups, reaching into the handbag of the streetwalker Candy (Jean Peters) in unmistakably suggestive fashion. Widmark has a scuzzy air about him, but mostly he refuses to tolerate nonsense from anyone. Fuller locates the heart of the character in good time, but he lets him have his mercenary fun first. Bresson was famous for his unique approach to actors, hiring nonprofessionals to deliver unaffected line readings. He eschewed close-ups and other easy psychological cues. LaSalle seems beaten down by the world — unable, or perhaps merely disinclined, to show any of Widmark’s flair. His close-set eyes dart about nervously while the rest of his face is impassive enough to escape notice.
Skip and Candy establish a rapport immediately. Their relationship even has a warped sort of parity, as each knocks out the other at some point. Although the animal attraction between them doesn’t blossom into respect or understanding right away, the crucial fact is that Skip’s interest in Candy will keep him involved in the plot. Michel, on the other hand, has no chemistry whatsoever with the woman in his life, a neighbor named Jeanne (Marika Green). Their several encounters represent opportunities for Michel to direct his energies to more positive, caring ends — opportunities he mostly passes up until it’s too late. The beatific blankness of Green’s face complements LaSalle in a way. They are mutually powerless. To drive the biblical allusions home even further, she becomes a single mother later in the film. This development pushes Michel to reform himself, whereas the earlier death of his mother (Dolly Scal) only pushed him toward more elaborate thefts. By contrast, Skip’s moral awakening comes after the murder of Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), a cordial underworld acquaintance. The mother’s death is just something that happens; Moe’s death is a clear sign that the story’s Communist villains are a serious threat.
The plot superstructure of Pickup on South Street leads it toward Cold War anxieties, sidelining its hero’s pickpocketing activities early on. After the inciting incident, the skills and techniques of the trade are verbally described, and Candy takes note of the fact that Skip has “fingers like an artist.” Otherwise, his specific line of work isn’t an abiding concern. He becomes a sleuth, a negotiator, and a fighter. Fuller seems more at home with violence than with the slinking movements of the pickpocket. The climax is kinetic and brutal. Pickpocket, unsurprisingly, lives up to its title. The most virtuosic sequences are wordless displays of prowess: fingers flicking open coat buttons, lifting billfolds, folding newspapers. As Michel becomes more skillful, he acquires companions to help him pull off more complicated and lucrative efforts. Watching the film, one gets the impression that pickpocketing has much in common with magic tricks. The practitioners of both rely on misdirection, confidently aloof body language, and conducive environmental conditions. As it happens, one of the actors, a man named Kassagi, was a pickpocket in real life who later earned a living as a magician. What both Fuller and Bresson discovered was how to convey the elusive power of sleight of hand cinematically. One shot shows the pickpocket in a crowd, his hands unseen. An insert shot shows us the hand doing its work. We return to his face and interpret its expression in a new context, but we still only infer, via montage, what he’s up to.
The greatness of these films is partly found in the contradictory ways they’ve been interpreted over the years. Pickup on South Street is superficially an anti-Communist film, in which criminals and law enforcement find common cause against a foreign threat. On the other hand, it’s a film that explicitly sneers at “patriotic eyewash.” Interpretations of films from classic Hollywood often have to sidestep the studio-mandated “messages” to get at the deeper, guttural impulses they convey: in this case, a man’s rage when the women in his life get beaten up or killed and he couldn’t do anything to stop it. Pickpocket is trickier still. It’s been seen as a spiritual film, in which a man struggles his way toward redemption and transcendence through communion with another soul. Then again, the relationship in question has not been persuasive to every viewer, myself included. The film could also express despair at a modern world in which spiritual things have wilted and too many people are consigned to subsistence. There are sexual undertones in Michel’s rendezvous with fellow thieves, as well. Maybe this movie is subverting its purported “message,” too. That kind of misdirection and dexterity would be wholly appropriate.