The other day, a Netflix movie showed up in my mail that, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember adding. What the heck was Pickup on South Street?
Most of the time this is a bad sign – I can’t tell you the number of terrible movies I’ve added to Netflix for reasons I’ve completely forgotten by the time they arrive. But Pickup on South Street turned out to be an excellent surprise.
Set in New York, the gritty noir centers on a pickpocket who steals a woman’s wallet on the subway, inadvertently taking top secret microfilm meant for communist spies. It’s not long before everyone is breathing down his neck for the loot, from killer commies to the police to a dame who was just trying to make her boyfriend happy.
Though the communist angle is dated, the rest of the film is as hard-boiled as it gets, with some of the best dialog I’ve ever come across in a noir.
Skip McCoy (pickpocket) to the police: I know you pinched me three times and got me convicted three times and made me a three time loser. And I know you took an oath to put me away for life. Well you’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eye-wash, but get this: I didn’t grift that film and you can’t prove I did! And if I said I did, you’d slap that fourth rap across my teeth no matter what promises you made!
Does it get any better than that? The tension never quits, loyalties change on a dime, and you never know what’s going to happen next.
Unfortunately, though it offers an archetypal cross-section of New York noir locations – police precinct, riverside shanty, Chinese restaurant, subway station, public library, etc. – the movie wasn’t actually filmed in New York. Most of the time, the backlot sets are obvious…
In fact, they used the same subway set for two different locations. First, for 33rd Street…
Then later, for 3rd Avenue:
But every once in a while, a snippet of actual New York would be included, like this shot of a woman walking down a street. There weren’t many, but I became interested in trying to find these brief bits of actual New York that were used to sell a movie made in Los Angeles.
Much of the film takes place on the waterfront, and one of the few on-the-street shots was shot right near the East River…
A fantastic look at Kent Ave heading south from North 6th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Compare the 1952 shot with today, and you’ll see how drastically the area has changed: gone are the cobblestone streets, train rails, and industrial warehouse vibe, replaced by towering modern skyscrapers and converted loft apartments.
The dead giveaway is the Austin, Nichols & Co. building featured prominently in the shot, located at North 4th Street and Kent (also note the crossing guard arms in the shot):
Built in 1914-15 and designed by Cass Gilbert, it was constructed for Andrews, Nichols, & Co., then the largest wholesale grocer in the world. I’ve always loved this building, one of the few adaptations of the Egyptian Revival style for a modern commercial building.
That they shot in Williamsburg over some of the more commonly used waterfront areas of the city is unusual for the time; what’s even stranger is that the exterior was technically supposed to be in for Manhattan, where pickpocket Skip McCoy lives in an East River shanty.
By definition, this must be 66 South Street, even though no such place actually exists.
However, later backdropped interior shots tell us exactly where this is…
Directly below the Brooklyn Bridge…
…which would put it about here:
I will now forever think these rotting posts once supported Skip McCoys bad-ass shanty:
After learning of the theft, the police pick up Skip McCoy to ask him about the crime. As they look out the window…
…we get a shot of the arriving car…
…which (I cannot believe I recognized this) you can find at the corner of Broome & Centre Street, with a few less cobblestones, a lot more ivy:
So why did they choose this random corner? Because it’s actually not random at all: it’s the northern side of the former New York City Police Headquarters building, one of my favorite buildings in the city:
But was there a mistake? If you look at the frame, you’ll see it’s angled as if the officers are looking down from the building across the street. Actually, this makes it even more accurate – 400 Broome Street was once the Police Annex, where the Bureau of Criminal Investigation was located. It blows my mind that they went to such lengths for such a minor shot that could have easily been cheated literally anywhere.
Today, the Police Headquarters has been changed into expensive apartments, the Annex into an NYU dorm. I’ve never been inside either, but here’s a look at a top floor Headquarters apartment (ha, they’re not all like this).
Wondering what’s so special about the wallet he stole, Skip finds the microfilm and goes to the New York Public Library to examine it using one of the microfilm machines.
Pretty much identical, right down to the notice board:
As Skip begins to realize the mess he’s in, a tense confrontation occurs on a subway ride. While the train is obviously faked, the rear project of moving through tunnels is very real…
…and was shot on the L-line, stopping at Third Avenue for the climactic fight:
Another shot revealing a mosaic “3”…
There was just one final shot I was having trouble figuring out – the one that made me decide to track down the locations in the first place, in which the female protagonist Candy attempts to deliver the microfilm, not realizing she’s been pickpocketed.
It seemed so familiar, and there were so many clues…but I just couldn’t place it.
The corner store is a place called Jerrems, but I could only find listings for that name in Chicago. The antique streetlights might be a giveaway, but I didn’t recognize them. Finally, on the left is an ad for something called The Super Constellation, which turns out to be a type of TWA flight. A second TWA ad can be seen on the building wall to the left – perhaps that was an old TWA office?
I checked all the 1950s TWA New York offices and…nothing. Then I stumbled on a TWA ad for offices in Los Angeles, and it occurred to me: what if it wasn’t New York?
And sure enough, when I looked around the area of the first TWA office listed at 540 West 6th Street in Los Angeles…
…there it was at the corner of West 6th Street and Grand, complete with antique streetlights:
The arched building on the corner is 609 South Grand Avenue, and in all fairness, it’s a pretty decent street to fake New York with:
Candy runs across the street and enters a columned building…
…which can be found just down the street at 523 West 6th Street:
The Pacific Center was built in 1908 and is actually one of the oldest functioning office spaces in Los Angeles.
Candy actually enters the building, and we get a shot of the interior. If any Scouting NY fans in LA happen to pass by, I’d love to know what it looks like today:
Later in the film, the same location is reused as Skip McCoy is followed by a Communist spy. Note the TWA office sign visible in the background, and the Jemmens building on the right:
To escape, Skip ducks into a deli on the left…
…which today has been replaced by either a Starbucks or a Kinkos:
Director Samuel Fuller based the story on his days working as a crime reporter around South Street, and there’s a distinct New York feel to the movie, even if the locations might not be real. If you’re looking for a post-turkey-coma movie, Pickup On South Street is a great trip to a world of grifters and flatfoots, molls and buttonmen – even if Candy pronounces Houston Street “Hue-ston.”
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