JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

From Pickup on South Street to Cape Town Affair...

...replicating sets, dialogue, shots, and also ideology.

In Pickup on South Street as Skip picks Candy’s purse on the subway...

... he also unwittingly grabs espionage microfilm.

A parallel sequence provides...

... the initiating incident for Cape Town Affair.

In Pickup on South Street, Mo knows nothing about Commies except that she doesn't like them.

Skip is “completely asocial, an outsider who doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the world.”

Skip and Mo “just getting by” in Pickup on South Street...

... like Skip and Sam in Cape Town Affair.

Sam lives alone is a small poor room, as does her counterpart Mo in the Fuller film.

These close ups occur in their respective films just before each woman is killed by Joey, the Red.

The plot of both films has Skip choose political action to save the woman he loves.

Skip lives in a shack by the river in both films. It has a trapdoor in the floor leading to the water.

In this way, Fuller’s mise en scene allots Skip a dwelling beside the warf, where he escapes like a water rat. Cape Town Affair uses the setting to the same narrative ends and with the same emotional overtones.

The interior of Skip’s shack in Pickup on South Street, where he lies in a hammock and drinks a beer.

The same mise-en-scene with the same connotations in Cape Town Affair.

Cape Town Affair
Right-wing noir,
South African style

by Joseph K. Heumann and
Robin L. Murray

In 1967, long-time Fox director, Robert D. Webb went to South Africa (for 20th Century Fox International) to slavishly remake Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), this time titled Cape Town Affair. Webb literally transports Pickup on South Street to its new setting, crediting Samuel Fuller and Harold Medford for a script nearly recreated word for word and for characters and interior sets nearly duplicated except for two changes: a change in two characters’ names, from Mo to Sam and from Tiger to Donkey and – most importantly — a move to late 1960s Cape Town, South Africa, that becomes concretized by a portrait of the late Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd on the walls of a police station and an intelligence agency’s office.

The film is a natural to remake in this setting, not as a recontextualization but as a complete transposition not only of dialogue but ideology for several reasons: 20th Century Fox, Pick Up On South Street’s production company, produced the film for Killarney Studios, their South African subsidiary. The film in its original form reinforces anticommunist values, which, in South Africa, are equated with apartheid policies. And the film was produced and distributed to white-only audiences in South Africa who were growing more and more paranoid about communist-led Black insurrections, especially on South African borders. Unlike with most remakes, Webb and Fox did not recontextualize Pick Up On South Street when it remade it in 1967 because it did not need to change the film to fit its 1960s South African location.     

Overview of Fuller’s
Pickup on South Street

Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, set in New York City, fits the early 1950s milieu in which he sets the film, since it draws so strongly on the Cold War paranoia and fear of communist espionage. A synopsis of Pickup on South Street makes its relevance to the Cold War period clear: After some microfilm is picked out of a purse owned by pretty prostitute and unknowing messenger for the communists (Candy, played by Jean Peters), the FBI and the police collaborate to find the pickpocket, who turns out to have a record of three convictions (Skip, played by Richard Widmark). The authorities use a stoolie’s (Mo’s/Sam’s, played by Thelma Ritter in the original) help and stop a communist espionage scheme. The pickpocket, Skip, and Candy eventually fall in love and help the FBI and police — especially Tiger (Murvyn Vye) catch the commies, a choice that cleans up Skip’s record and gains him respect in Candy’s eyes.

Samuel Fuller describes Skip as “[c]ompletely asocial…, an outsider who doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the world” and Candy as “a good-looking, streetwise dame with a checkered past” (292). Fuller names the police officer working with the FBI, Captain Dan Tiger and portrays him as “the captain of the anti-pickpocket brigade who’s trying to put Skip away for life” (292). But it’s Moe, “a stoolie whose one goal is to save up enough money for a decent cemetery burial,” who states the theme of the film:

“What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I know one thing: I just don’t like them” (Pickup on South Street).

Fuller’s Pickup is his reworking of a Dwight Taylor script (with story credit), Blaze of Glory (1952) about “a woman lawyer [who] falls in love with a criminal she’s defending in a murder trial” (Fuller 292). To avoid the long courtroom case, Fuller changed the characters and went “down a few rungs lower on the ladder of criminality” (Fuller 292). But Dwight Taylor’s script also highlights drug trafficking (Gallafent 245) rather than communist spies, so changes to the Taylor script also reflect the 1946 amendment to the Motion Picture Production Code. “Particular Applications” of the Code “prohibit[ed] the kinds of content which, over the years, [had] caused trouble for the industry” (Balio 380). Changes in Pickup relate most directly to section I of these particulars, “Crimes Against the Law.”

In his autobiography, however, Samuel Fuller does not mention the drug trafficking in the original script or problems of the Production Code (and he never mentions Cape Town Affair). Instead, he highlights the cold war milieu as the basis for the film’s chief conflict between patriotic Americans and members of a communist spy ring, remarking on Klaus Fuchs, “the spy who operated from England, selling secrets on microfilm to the Soviet Union” (295). Fuller “wanted to take a poke at the idiocy of the cold war climate of the fifties” with Pickup, so the film was “told through the eyes of the powerless” (295). As Fuller put it,

“Cold war paranoia? Hell, those crooks were most interested in just getting by” (295).

A protagonist like Skip seems as reluctant a hero as the noir nihilists cited by Barbara Deming or even a psychotic like Alan Ladd’s character in This Gun for Hire. Yet unlike the noir heroes whom Deming mentions, Skip is not incited to action by a femme fatale. He chooses “political” action to save (successfully) the woman he loves. Unlike Deming’s heroes or Ladd’s psychotic character, too, Skip wins. Only Moe loses her life as a result of the film’s communist espionage plot.

Post WW2 anticommunist fervor and its impact on filmmaking

Anticommunist movies grew in number in the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s as a result of many historical events surrounding the Cold War—including Russia’s development and testing of the A and H bombs, China going Communist, the Korean War, and House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations, as well as the Senate (McCarthy) hearings. Fuller directed several films with anticommunist themes during the early 1950s, including Steel Helmet, a film he also wrote. The film examines the Korean War and its consequences from the perspective of an American sergeant (Gene Evans). Although the film has an overall anti-war theme, it also argues against the totalitarianism of Communist North Korea, where love between soldiers (like that between Short Round and Sergeant Zack) is “scoff[ed]” at (Garnham 114). Fuller also directed films with an anti-communist feel for 20th Century Fox: Pickup on South Street, Fixed Bayonets and Hell and High Water.

Twentieth Century Fox’s The Desert Fox, for example, highlights the rehabilitation of the Nazi General Erwin Rommel. Twentieth Century Fox, like all Hollywood studios, had transformed itself in response to the 1948 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited studios from owning theatre chains and to “The House onUn-American Activities Committee hearings and the Hollywood blacklist” (Custin 309). Samuel Fuller’s Hell and High Water, especially, seems to respond to Fox’s political and social transformation, since the film speculates about communists’ attempts to drop a nuclear bomb on their own side and start World War III. In the film, the communist Chinese attempt to fly an American warplane from a small Alaskan island to bomb North Korea. The film’s anticommunist message is anything but subtle, but Fuller agreed to direct Hell and High Water as a “personal favor” to Zanuck (Fuller 307).

According to Fuller, he agreed to direct Hell and High Water after he and Zanuck had an altercation with J. Edgar Hoover regarding Pickup on South Street. Fuller recalls,“The FBI chief was very disturbed about Pickup on South Street and wanted to see Zanuck and me about it” (307). Hoover, according to Fuller, thought the film “had gone too far” (307). Yet when Hoover asked that “offending scenes” be “cut or reshot,” Zanuck refused (according to Fuller) (308). Fuller then rewrote the script of Hell and High Water so it was merely “an adventure yarn” with a “stylized, cartoonish tale” (308), as well as a site for an experimental use of Cinema Scope in the interior of a submarine (313). Yet, as with Pickup, according to Fuller, leftist critics saw the film as “anticommunist propaganda” (313). Such an esoteric period in the United States in which a film like Pickup on South Street fits so well raises the question, why does Webb’s remake of Pickup, Cape Town Affair, fit so comfortably into its new milieu, 1967 Cape Town, both visually and politically?

Anticommunist fervor and
Pickup on South Street

Pickup on South Street, the 1953 Fuller film, works well in its urban 50s noir setting, with the Red scare and cold-war paranoia seeming to drive its fervor. But it also responds to the strictures of the Motion Picture Production Code against highlighting drug use and trafficking evident in the script on which the film was based. The amendment to the Code most relevant to Fuller’s choice to replace drug traffic with communist espionage was added on September 11, 1946. It states, under “Particular Applications” of the Code,

“The illegal drug traffic must not be portrayed in such a way as to stimulate curiosity concerning the use of, or traffic in, such drugs; nor shall scenes be approved which show the use of illegal drugs, or their effects, in detail” (quoted in Balio 380).

Fuller, or the producers at Fox, seems to have changed the film to avoid trouble. According to Edward Gallafent, Robert Aldrich claims that “up to The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), drugs couldn’t be mentioned in American films” (245) — two years after Fuller’s Pickup on South Street.

Ironically, Pickup on South Street was distributed in France with significant changes soon after its 1953 release, even thought it was not remade until 1967 — in South Africa. The French translation harked back to the plot of Taylor’s original script and substituted drug trafficking for the communist espionage in Fuller’s Pickup. According to Fuller, Georges Sadoul, whom Fuller claims was himself a communist, gave the film a negative review at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, seeing the film “as anticommunist propaganda” (304). In spite of the opinions of what Fuller calls “lefty critics” (304) the film won the Festival’s Bronze Lion (Fuller 305).

Fuller claims that what he calls the “hullabaloo” at the Venice Film Festival intimidated the film’s French distributor so much that “he retitled [the] movie as Le Port de la Drogue — Port of Drugs — changing the French-dubbed version so that, instead of microfilm destined for the communists, the pickpocket intercepts a drug shipment” (305). Fuller was outraged by the French distributor’s changes to his film, exclaiming in his autobiography, “France! Where I thought the artist’s work was revered, no matter his or her politics” (305). Although the film won a Bronze Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, the president of the Venice Jury, Luchino Visconti, “opposed [Fuller’s] winning the prize because of his own Communist convictions” (Fuller 306). But the French distributor’s changes to both title and plot demonstrate that Pickup on South Street could be translated and remade without any reference to communists, communism, or communist espionage whatsoever—something Fox and Robert Webb chose not to do in 1967 South Africa.

Continued: Cape Town Affair and anticommunist fervor


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