Valéry and Eliot have compared poets to criminals, here in the New York gutter lurks the three-time loser with "the hands of an artist," a furioso vision. The justly celebrated opening is cinema itself, pure and tingling: A crowded, clattering subway car, a moist passenger (Jean Peters) absent-mindedly biting her lower lip while a crafty pickpocket (Richard Widmark) tickles the innards of her purse, plus a couple of FBI agents who can’t quite believe their eyes. She’s a Commie agent’s patsy, her filched wallet holds microfilm of military secrets, "you look for oil and sometimes you hit a gusher." With no use for "patriotic eyewash," the scoundrel in the waterfront shack is ready to sell the MacGuffin to the highest bidder until the moll and a professional snitch (Thelma Ritter) awaken his grubby sense of honor. Cold War anxiety merely heightens the already-combustible fabric of everyday America in Samuel Fuller’s two-fisted masterpiece, characters are always scavenging and knocking around for the top of the heap. (People inform on each other with no hesitation or rancor, "he’s gotta live," "she’s gotta eat," it’s just business until it’s not.) Far from reviling them, Fuller loves these scroungers as the closet defenders of the lopsided system that’s marginalized them, contrasting their gritty tenacity with the cravenness of peculiarly plutocratic Reds filmed in parodic Soviet close-ups. The phenomenally virile camerawork takes off from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog and improves on it, pushing whole sequences (Widmark cuffs Peters, revives her with splashed beer, and seduces her by rubbing her bruised jaw) beyond noir tropes and into the realm of batty lyricism. Widmark’s jackal impudence and Peters’ ripe sneer-pout are lovely comic-strip details suspended between Runyon and Bukowski, and then there’s the bowery Shakespeare of Ritter’s doomed stoolie—wily, dilapidated, hardboiled and palpably weary, pining for a fancy funeral and confronting the Reaper’s record-scratch in perhaps the tenderest moment Fuller ever shot. "Even in our crummy line of business, ya gotta draw the line somewhere." Bresson's adagio telling of the conversion is just down the road, and just as uproarious. Cinematography by Joseph MacDonald. With Richard Kiley, Murvyn Vye, Willis Bouchey, and Milburn Stone. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce