In the 10 years between the end of World War II and the rise of rock & roll, the thrill of a good B movie was the closest audiences could get to the wrong side of the tracks. Made on the cheap, dealing with subjects beneath the contempt of most movie reviewers, the Bs offered an eloquently nasty no-thanks to mainstream American culture. Bland spectacles like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth may have won Best Picture Oscars, but offbeat gems such as Pickup on South Street, Gun Crazy, and Road House — all newly available on video — are what snare viewers and influence filmmakers 40 years later. There are plenty of modern noirs — including David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, but the original Bs somehow work a more convincing magic. Their dark themes of betrayal, paranoia, and crazy love, which few films dared own up to in the Truman-Eisenhower era, seem all the more potent for having been forbidden fruit.
Home video is surely the best way to see these treasures today. When old B movies are shown on broadcast TV at all, it’s at 3 a.m., with scratchy, faded prints that have been whittled down over the years to accommodate more and more K-Tel commercials. These tapes, on the other hand, have been mastered from pristine and unabridged versions, so every shadow yields its secrets with pungent clarity.
That’s especially true of 1953’s Pickup on South Street, which is simply one of the great forgotten movies of the ’50s. Director Sam Fuller broke into Hollywood as a screenwriter, but by his sixth film as a writer-director he was a master of vivid imagery as well, and Pickup has the look and feel of a brilliantly choreographed street fight. The story’s a yelp of urban adrenaline: Small-time pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) dips into a purse on the subway and comes up with a handful of top-secret microfilm; before he can understand what’s happening, both the Commie spies who stole it and the Feds who want it back are tracking him down. Fuller’s less interested in red-baiting, though, than in watching his outcast characters try to grope back into society. You can’t get more marginal than Skip — a ”two-time loser” who lives in a riverfront shack barely attached to the city by a rickety catwalk. But as he falls for Candy (Jean Peters), the tart who unknowingly served as courier for her nogoodnik boyfriend (Richard Kiley), the embers of Skip’s decency are fanned into small but real flames.
That may make the movie sound dutiful, when in fact it’s as dizzying as a bebop sax solo. The dialogue is hip and hard-boiled — ”All right, muffin, let’s have some straight talk” — but it’s more authentic than empty pulp: Fuller actually talked like this himself. The performances, too, are brutal and knowing. With his tiny face taut under a snap-brim hat, Widmark makes you believe his character could punch a woman out, revive her by pouring cold beer on her head, and be passionately necking with her a minute later. Peters makes you believe she’d kiss back. Best is Thelma Ritter as Moe, a broken-down necktie seller who moonlights as a stool pigeon so she can buy herself a fancy funeral. The heartbreaking scene in which Moe comes home to find Candy’s Commie-symp boyfriend waiting with a gun is both the character actress’ finest moment and a case of Fuller’s harsh tabloid sentimentality at its most evocative.
Gun Crazy, directed by Joseph H. Lewis and cowritten by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo under an alias, isn’t as stylized as Pickup. In its own way, though, it burrows even deeper beneath the American Dream. This one’s a real cheapie — you can practically smell the paint drying on the sets — but that seems just right for the story of Bart Tare (John Dall), an all-American Joe with a thing for guns and the misfortune to meet a kill-crazy babe. Peggy Cummins is unforgettable as carny sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr, the kewpie doll who uses her tight smile and tighter cowboy suit to lead Bart on a cross-country crime spree. He doesn’t need much convincing, of course: These two are united by the giddy antisocial kick they get from firing bullets.
Gun Crazy echoes the Bonnie and Clyde story (Cummins even wears a Bonnie Parker beret in one scene), but without the overt counterculture sentimentality of Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. There’s one sequence that embodies Lewis’ detachment especially well: a bank heist filmed entirely from the backseat of a getaway car in one 3 1/2-minute shot. It makes an accomplice of the audience while showing how deeply these two are in over their heads. Bart and Annie Laurie become America’s Most Wanted without ever figuring out what they want for themselves, an irony you can still find in any newspaper today.
By comparison, Road House is simply great trash. Jean Negulesco’s sweaty melodrama takes place at a backwoods roadhouse run by Jefty (Richard Widmark again) and his pal Pete (boring Cornel Wilde). Eyes bulging with lust, Jefty hires world-weary lounge singer Lily (Ida Lupino) for a six-week stint; after that the only questions are when will Lily and Pete get it on and how badly will Jefty wig out when he discovers it?
Since it’s Richard Widmark we’re talking about, Jefty flips his lid pretty impressively. In fact, having the actor portray yet another giggling creep is Road House’s chief raison d’etre. Until he goes around the bend, though, the movie’s primary guilty pleasure is Lupino. Whether she’s singing torch songs in a wracked, pre-Marianne Faithfull croak or coaxing Pete into teaching her how to bowl (a scene that still raises blisters), Lupino has a campy ripeness not at all in keeping with post-war propriety. Road House has little on its addled mind besides sex and psychosis, but that was subversion enough in 1948. It plays pretty swell in 1991, too. Pickup on South Street: A; Gun Crazy: B+; Road House: B-