a good film that could have been better. it’s about a pickpocket (richard widmark) who unwittingly gets more than he bargained for when he picks the purse of a young woman. inside her wallet is secret government information which she was transferring from a communist agent to a communist leader.
fuller (steel helmet, naked kiss, etc.) isn’t afraid to move the camera to make an emotional point. in this way the film is visually somewhat similar to the graduate. it’s the kind of thing that only cinema can do and it’s a shame that more directors don’t do it. sweeping in on a character when something important happens, or moving around them when their view changes, etc. widmark is good, but thelma ritter, in a supporting role, does an even better job. she probably should have been nominated for a supporting actress award. nevermind, i just checked imdb.com and she was nominated. in that case, she probably should have won. her character is the most sympathetic and, next to widmark, the most complicated.
in this film fuller creates a world in which money rules all. through the first half of the film all decisions are made in the interest of self-preservation. ritter’s character dimes out her bud (widmark) for less than $40. at the same time widmark is willing to deal with communists so long as it means finally getting the big score for which he’s been looking. at the same time there is an element of professionalism amongst those in the underworld. widmark understands that ritter will sell him out, and doesn’t begrudge her anything because of it. he remarks “after all she’s gotta eat.” there is a sense that this is what people do, and this is what they are and everything is understood. in this way fuller creates a world of archetypes who play out their hand to the best of their ability. widmark is faced with the opportunity to hand over the wallet that he’s stolen earlier in the film without consequence, but he balks at the cops when they present him with the offer because he thinks they’ll bite him in the ass even if he helps them. it recalls the old tale of the scorpion and the frog of which widmark must have been well aware. i really liked this element of the film because it fits well into the noir genre where everyone is selfish and things are totally dark. when the woman whose wallet is stolen finds widmark by going underground, she is instantly attracted to him and she tries to convince him that her love is genuine, but he figures she’s playing an angle so he shuns her. he tries to squeeze her for some money in return for the valuable microfilm he stole from her, meanwhile she’s being squeezed from the other side by the ex-boyfriend communist operative, who gave her the film to carry across town in the first place. ritter’s character also shows weakness and sentimentality and she pays for it more dearly.
up to this point the film was great, but then things took a turn. widmark seemingly falls in love and hunts down the commies on his own. in the end the woman lives through a gunshot wound and widmark is the hero. it’s an unsatisfying ending to a film with much darker, and therefore better, beginnings. i’ve said it before, but i’ll repeat it again – i like my film noir to be truly noir, and this one didn’t really do that. other than that the film is good, it’s got plenty of good direction and the writing creates some nice dynamics between the characters, but i didn’t like it as much as i could have.