This was the age of McCarthyism, although the significance of that was completely lost on me. I knew the Communists were a bad lot alright, so bad that Hollywood depicted them as worse than criminals. This tradition went back to the war and a number of movies in which gangsters and thieves and even murderers were allowed to be portrayed as good guys, provided they were fighting against Nazis. And the Commies were no different. It wasn’t at all clear quite what was wrong with them but they were plainly as bad as anyone could get.
The most outstanding example of this phenomenon (for me at least) was a nifty little thriller called Pick-up on South Street. Richard Widmark usually played routine hero types, but he could do a particularly evil villain if he wanted to—a Peter Lorre level sneering psychopathic rat, complete with sinister giggle. In this film, because he was up against Commies, he got to render his evil weasel as a hero.
He plays a cannon (pickpocket) who on the subway 'sugars' a young lady—unwittingly lifting state secrets from her purse. The lady, usually glamorous Jean Peters doing a superb gutter-snipe with an Bronx accent that could stop a subway train, is equally unaware that she is acting as a courier for her Commie boyfriend. And it is all witnessed by a couple of FBI agents trying to tail her to the Mr Big, when Widmark’s unwitting interception foils their plans. Much of the movie concerns attempts to appeal to Widmark’s patriotism—with varying degrees of force—but they fare no better than the Commies in their efforts to gain his cooperation. Even standard villain players Murvyn Vye and Willis Bouchey as Police Chief and FBI agent, get to play goodies. It is only when the baddies seriously mistreat Miss Peters (beaten up twice and shot once but nothing can stop that accent) and bump off sweet old Thelma Ritter that Widmark sees the need to do the right thing.
I just didn’t understand it. It wasn’t right. I thought I had this good-guys bad-guys business under control but all of a sudden it became very confusing. I just couldn’t figure it out.