Anti-Commie Friday Night at the Pacific Film Archive

I visited the Pacific Film Archive Friday night to catch two very different films, both from 1953,  and both part of the series An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War. The first, Invaders from Mars, was all sorts of fun in ways that the filmmakers never intended. The second, Pickup on South Street, instantly became one of my all-time favorite noirs.

My big question: Why show the films in that order? Certainly the taut and thoughtful thriller should screen before the unintentionally hilarious sci-fi absurdity.

Invaders from Mars

I first saw this film, in a 16mm print, at  Gary Warne’s fabled Circus of the Soul bookstore. That must have been around 1977. I believe it was part of a series that Gary called It Came From Beneath the Budget. It was laughably bad then, and still is now.

It was directed by the great production designer William Cameron Menzies (Thief of Bagdad, Gone with the Wind). He should have stuck with production design. The acting is bad, the script is worse, and everything looks appallingly cheap. It cries out for MST3K treatment.

Invaders from Mars is one of those movies where aliens take over people’s bodies for their evil plans. This sub-genre produced one really good movie: the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In that one,  the possessed characters continue to act as if nothing has changed. When a spouse or child insists that their loved one isn’t him- or herself, you can easily believe that no one else notices a difference. But in Invaders, you sit there wondering why everyone isn’t asking "How come he’s suddenly an asshole?"

By the way, the Martians aren’t really trying to invade. They’re attacking select people working on a top secret weapon that could one day attack Mars. In other words, they’re acting in self-defense, and much like the American and Israeli intelligent forces who (most people suspect) have been sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program and assassinating their scientists.

The film was not, as I had recalled, shot in three-strip Technicolor, but in a cheaper two-color system called Cinecolor. The PFA screened a horrible-looking, scratched and soft 35mm print.

Pickup on South Street

Wow! What a difference. From a mess to a masterpiece.

Written and directed by the great Samuel Fuller (whose autobiography I’m currently reading), this Cold War noir stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who lifts the wrong wallet on a crowded subway. The wallet, belonging to a beautiful young woman(Jean Peters) contains a piece of microfilm with important government secrets. She has no idea that the people to whom she was supposed to deliver the microfilm are Communist agents. The US government, of course, is also after this valuable piece of celluloid.

Before he came to Hollywood, Fuller spent many years as a reporter on the city crime beat. He knew the underworld. He successfully wrote crime fiction before turning to screenwriting and from there to direction. It’s no surprise that his dialog crackles with both wit and authenticity.

In Pickup, he handles violence as well as dialog. If you’re used to today’s heavily cut action scenes, the fights in this picture are a revelation. Shot in long takes that leave no doubt that the stars took some punishment, the scenes have an immediate impact that doesn’t exist today.

And then there’s the great Thelma Ritter (the nurse in Rear Window). I’ve seen her mostly in comic roles, but here she breaks your heart as a poverty-stricken spinster who sells ties on the streets and information to the cops. She’s saving money for the only thing left she can look forward to: a nice funeral.

Pickup is clearly an anti-Communist picture, but it wasn’t anti-Communist enough for many conservatives of its day. They objected to a protagonist (the word hero doesn’t seem applicable) who’s not at all patriotic, but simply looking out for himself.

By the way, none of the bad guys have foreign accents; they’re all clearly Americans. The film never explains if they’re truly Communists, or just in it for the money.

The whole picture is damn near perfect.