In Pick Up On South Street, Jean Peters is definitely what one would call a Sass Mouth Dame, made even more sassy and salty by the condescending and plotting men she is surrounded by in the film. Despite Richard Widmark being billed, and scripted, as the star of this Cold War era noir, Jean Peters’ face fills the first shot in the film after the rushing image of the subway train. And what a face it is. She manages to look as if she would rather be anywhere but on a hot, overcrowded subway car right from the moment we see her. Her costuming makes sure that she immediately stands out from the dull clothes of the other passengers. Her white dress has capped sleeves, a wide square collared neckline, and a finely detailed and delicately fringed edge along the sleeves and neckline. It looks cool, feminine and practical, something that a real women in the city would wear on a humid, muggy New York day. The audience, especially the women in the audience, can immediately see that Jean Peters’ Candy will be no wall flower or fainting violet.
Her sass and savvy is really introduced when she is immediately suspicious of the jelly spined Joey, played by the brilliantly versatile Richard Kiley, who makes Candy look even more cool with his anxious sweating. She isn’t afraid to interrogate him about his shifty paranoia concerning the film Richard Widmark picked and pocketed from her purse on the subway. She also isn’t afraid of calling him out on his low key, and pathetic, attempts to remind her of her less than illustrious past. This toughness and fearlessness isn’t only reserved for Joey, as Candy tells Lightning Louis, a criminal who eats compulsively, “I hope you bust!” after he cons her out of forty dollars.
Her treatment at the hands of Skip (Widmark) isn’t much better, as he punches her in the jaw, before dousing her in cold water so she’ll regain consciousness. But Candy won’t take his abuse or his leering without comment, and spits out, “Take your time lookin’!” as she massages her bruised jaw. She sets about seducing Skip, even though he seems to think that he’s the one doing the seducing while he takes over massaging her face. “Does a beer always do this to you?” she inquires dryly. Skip tries to rob Candy of her composure throughout their initial meeting, both through verbal fencing and further rough handling, but she stages a very composed retreat by having the last word. “I’ll tell my mother,” she replies after Skip won’t give up the film that she said contained photos of her “brother”.
During her exchange with the greasy Lightning Louis and the abusive Skip, she wears a gorgeously simple white dress with a deep v-neckline and white belt. The sleeves are short once again, and this time they’re gloriously ruched, accentuating the toned slimness of her arms. Knotted broaches draw attention to the cut of her neckline. The dress is simple and figure hugging, and once again looks like something a woman of the era would have worn, even while tracking down wisecracking pickpockets.
When she returns to Skip after talking to Joey, who looks even more on the verge of losing his lunch over the whole situation, she is in fine Sass Mouth Dame form. Skip tries to act as if he hasn’t “stooped” to pickpocketing on the subway in half a lifetime, but Candy is having none of it. “The last time was this morning,” she drawls, before adding, “How many times you been caught with your hand where it doesn’t belong?” One wonders if she’s just talking about pickpocketing. Jean Peters manages to convey the incompatible elements of innocence and maturity that comprise Candy’s character. But she does so in a way that is neither gag or eye roll inducing. Upon finding out that Skip is a three time loser, and therefore skating on very thin ice in terms of living the rest of life outside of the clink, she seems to genuinely not want him to face such a fate. It seems that she is unaware that this is almost a guarantee for Skip before he tells her as much, but her reaction to the news shows that she is well aware of the brutality that awaits Skip in prison. But she also defies the “hooker with a heart” trope by calling Skip out on his attempts to roughly seduce her by mockingly observing that “you’re not going to raise the ante by smearing my lipstick”. She also seems fully aware of Skip’s capacity for cruelty, as well as the motivations for his actions, which are mostly selfish and avarice.
She has a clear moral centre, which is most obviously displayed by her anger at Skip accusing her of being a communist, and therefore a traitor. She won’t be degraded by Joey, with whom she had a serious relationship, and she most certainly won’t be degraded by a pickpocket that she’s only known for a few hours. She retaliates by slapping him, and when he is once again rough with her, she is openly furious. Her sense of honour and fair-play is made even more obvious when she is clearly confused and upset by Joey and his associates’ double dealing, and political machinations. She is also greatly disturbed by Joey’s intentions to murder Skip in order to reclaim the missing film. She tries to act as Joey’s conscience because she not only doesn’t want Skip to be murdered in cold blood, but also because she and Joey have shared a past, and she doesn’t want to see him be put to death for a crime she knows he has been pushed to commit.
Her interplay with Moe, played by the incomparable Thelma Ritter, provides a kind of female sorority in a predominantly male film. She confides in Moe about her worries concerning the two men who she cares about, and shows real vulnerability in seeking council and comfort from the world weary older woman. Despite this, her sass has not been muted, and she calls Moe out on her own problematic outlook on life, which has caused her to make a living as a police informant, but to deny this fact. She earns Moe’s respect, as the other woman defends Candy to Skip, and informs him that Candy “stuck her neck out for ya” by protecting him from Joey and his associates. Candy’s heartache when she discovers that Joey has murdered Moe, is raw and absolute. Candy repeatedly lies to Joey in order to save Skip from certain death, even going so far as to hit Skip over the head with a bottle and steal the film when he informs her that he means to meet Joey, who has no intention of paying for the return of the film. Except if that payment is in the form of a bullet.
Candy goes to the police despite personal danger, as she has unwittingly become complicit in a communist plot, and is perhaps known to the police due to her past. She agrees to help them to entrap Joey, despite this definitely meaning that she is putting herself in further danger. The scene in which she speaks to Joey whilst she is in the bath, subverts the usual sexiness of the femme fatale. Instead of being sexy and alluring, Candy looks terrified at the possibility of Joey murdering her for not only her allegiance to Skip, but also as her acting as bait for the trap set by the cops. She doesn’t puff on her cigarette lazily as Lauren Bacall or Barbara Stanwyck would. It hangs out of her mouth as if it may fall out from a frightened start at any moment. Her bath robe is wonderfully simple with a drawn in waste and wide sleeves, topped with a hood that she tries to use as a shield from Joey’s violent interrogation of her loyalty.
Despite his brutality, she refuses to betray Skip, and defends herself against his attacks, managing to push him into a chair as she tries to flee the room. Even when Joey shoots her in the leg she refuses to give into his demands. Her protection of Skip extends to her hospital bed, where she pleads with the nurse to make sure he’s safe and that the cops are aware that Joey’s (literally) gunning for him.
Candy is the only really honest character in Pick Up On South Street. She tries to save both Joey and Skip from their own foolish decisions, subverting the usual “deceit” staged by the femme fatale. She recognises Skip’s many flaws and loves him anyway, although this is probably to her detriment: see physical abuse she’s had to endure from both her ex and current lover. Throughout the entire film she subverts the usual calling cards of the femme fatale. She seems almost reluctant to be an object of desire, possibly because of her past, and also because of the kind of men who desire her. She is neither sophisticated nor mysterious, although the details of her past are only suggested, probably because of the Production Code. And while she is undeniably sexy with her dewy complexion and svelte figure, everything about her, from her sassy verbal exchanges with the male characters, her uncomplicated, clean wardrobe and her understated hairstyle, make her easy to empathise and connect with. She acts as a touchstone for the audience throughout the story.
At the end of the film, she looks gorgeous in a strapless dress with a sweetheart neckline that is paired with a high collared jacket with embroidered detailing on the collar and front. As with her two earlier outfits, she is in white from head to toe, providing a much needed contrast with the dark suits worn by her male costars. And in true Sass Mouth Dame style, she has the last word, ending the film in reply to Murvyn Vye’s cynical prophesying about she and Skip’s future, with “You wanna bet?”