Thelma Ritter received her fourth Oscar nomination for her performances as Moe Williams in Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street. As far as the films that I've had to watch for this Supporting Actress project so far, Pickup on South Street ranks towards the very top of the list, and is truly an engaging masterpiece from Fuller. It is about a pickpocket named Skip McCoy (an excellent Richard Widmark) who steals a wallet from Candy (Jean Peters), without realizing that the wallet contained stolen government microfilm that Candy was unknowingly delivering to a group of Communists. What ensues is both the police and the Communists attempting to retrieve the microfilm from Skip. Thelma Ritter's role is as Moe Williams, a hustler who gives away information to both the police and criminals alike for a price. It's a very different type of role than her other nominated performances, where she usually played either housekeepers (All About Eve, Pillow Talk) or mothers (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Mating Season). Here she gives a complex, interesting performance with so much depth and value.
From the moment she steps onscreen, Thelma Ritter delivers such an interesting characterization of Moe Williams, and fully inhabits the character is every way possible. In her first scene in the police station we see the swagger and shadiness of Moe in a typical but effective way. Even though she wears these flowery dresses and appears to be a nice older lady, the way Thelma moves and speaks indicates the polar opposite. She just reeks of shadiness and underhanded dealings. This part of her performance merely sets up the character of Moe and sets her arc into motion. The scene establishes her as someone with a different sort of ethical code than the rest of the world, one where she looks out for herself because that's what needs to happen for her to live. It also introduces her desire to save money for a 'Fancy Funeral' rather than an anonymous one in a bad part of town. She's entertaining and quite good here, but really takes off in her subsequent scenes.
After her first scene in the film, each time we see Moe again Ritter peels back layers of this woman until finally reaching her tragic denouement. Her meeting with Jean Peter's Candy is where we begin to see the cracks in Moe's harsh exterior, but not too much. She's still appreciably slimy (even going as far as to force Candy to buy a tie) but this encounter has a snowball effect on the rest of the performance. When she meets with Skip at a bar we see the doubts grow within her about this ethical code of giving away information about people she cares about. She cares to much about Skip to be giving information about him. Then comes the real emotional kicker, where Moe is confronted by a Communist in her apartment looking to get Skip's address. It's a scene handled with such a natural delicacy and openness. Moe is fed up with the world and all her double dealings, and in this five minute sequences gives a performance that on its own would be worth an Oscar. She's heartbreaking and effecting to the point that I've teared up each time I've rewatched it in amazement.
What is so great about this performance is the journey that Ritter takes Moe on in the course of her four brief scenes. She gives such a fully realistic and natural performance, even though the role is one that could easily be overacted to stereotyped. I imagine there are a lot of people who will disagree with me, because the part and the accent could be seen as a little over the top and gimmicky. But I didn't see that, obviously. What I saw was an emotional rousing performance from an actress who I never really had seen be this good. A great performance in a great film. 5/5 Wiests.