ON DVD & BLU-RAY
52 Pick-Up (1986) Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)
This adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel features Roy Scheider as Harry Mitchell, the owner of a Los Angeles steelworks who lives with his wife Barbara (Ann-Margaret) who has a career in local politics. Unknown to her he has a younger mistress, a porn actress named Cini (short for Cynthia). One day he goes to her apartment to pay her a visit and is surprised to find a trio of masked hoodlums lying in wait for him. They make him watch a video of his shenanigans with Cini - and tell him that it’s his to keep for a price of $105,000, payable in installments with the first of $10,000 due in 2 days’ time.
Harry decides that going to the police is a bad move since if a scandal broke out it would jeopardise his wife’s career. Wracked with guilt and shell-shock he admits the whole thing to his wife. The hoods - three shady characters involved in the LA sex scene named Alan Raimy (John Glover), Leo Franks (Robert Trebor) and Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III) - arrange to meet Harry at a Dodgers game for the first pick-up. However, he hands them an envelope filled with worthless pieces of newspaper, prompting Alan to go and visit his house, stealing his gun and coat.
When they next catch up with Harry they take him to his steelworks and show him a second video, this time showing them shooting Cini with his gun and covering her with his coat - hence providing plenty of evidence for the cops to pin it on him. The price for this new video has gone up to $105,000 every year for the rest of his life. Harry, however, isn’t a man who will take this sort of thing lying down, and he decides to investigate the matter with the little evidence he has - including buying info off a stripper named Doreen (played by pop star Vanity), finding out exactly who his blackmailers are, and playing them off against each other.
Watch a trailer:
Director John Frankenheimer had a lengthy and prolific career spanning 48 years (from 1954 until his death in 2002) with films that ranged from widely acknowledged classics like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to widely acknowledged turkeys such as the 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, and hit just about every notch of quality in between. At the best of times he was clearly a director of formidable talent - but his heyday was widely considered to be from the early to mid 1960s, with his output being very uneven since then. 52 Pick-Up is one of the most underrated of his later films.
It’s a tense, funny, nasty adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, which was already more loosely made in 1984 as The Ambassador by Cannon Pictures (who again produced this version). It’s not hard to see this notorious production company’s hand behind this one; it has all of the violence, vengefulness, sleaze and nudity that can be seen in their 1980s Charles Bronson vehicles. The difference is that it’s made well and made intelligently.
Frankenheimer’s direction is wildly voyeuristic in its use of imagery and camerawork. The camera tracks our trio of villains around a house filled with half-naked porn actresses participating in various debauched acts, just as it tracks our main protagonist abruptly leaving a political rally his wife is participating or driving his Mustang around the Hollywood hills as dawn breaks while we feel his predicament sink in. Both are equally wallowing in their own sleaze, it’s just that one side of the coin has it all unashamedly on display while the other conceals it beneath a respectable surface. Likewise, the three criminals showing Harry the video of his mistress’s murder is preceded by him demonstrating the strength of his steel/titanium hybrid to a NASA representative by showing it being stress-tested with a series of bright orange explosions. In both cases, a display of violence is being used as a means to obtain cash - it’s just that one is technically more legitimate than the other.
Harry Mitchell, a consummate all-American businessman, is in many ways as ruthless and hard-nosed as the criminal underworld he’s up against, and this is what makes him a very compelling anti-hero. While he has a few flickers of conscience around how shamefully he has treated his loving wife he’s still a pretty reprehensible character. Luckily we have an actor of the quality of Roy Scheider filling his role; he does a great job twisting us between empathy at his predicament and awe at the audacity with which he runs rings around his opponents. There’s a certain leering catharsis in such scenes as him slapping one of the villains around with the cash envelope he is about to hand to him.
Not that he always runs rings around them… this is a cat and mouse game where the roles regularly switch. The three antagonists are all incredibly diverse in character. Leo (Robert Trebor) is an (implied) gay peepshow manager who is mired in sleaze but really not up to the rough stuff; he’s clearly the weak link who cracks under pressure. Bobby (Clarence Wiliams III) is the quiet one but, when called for, is a frighteningly violent bear of a man. The leader though is the weaselly, manipulative smooth operator Alan (John Glover), who is ultimately the nastiest of the lot. Later on he injects a woman with heroin and (it is implied) rapes her. While the scene is one of the few where we are spared graphic detail, it’s all the more disturbing since the woman in question has already been well established as the most decent-natured of all of the film’s main characters.
The main cast is rounded out by Ann-Margaret, an actress who was known as a sex symbol during the 1960s and 70s but was, at the time this one was made, in her 40s and past her career peak. She does well to establish a strong character for herself in a fairly thankless role as a wife who ultimately agrees to stand by her man despite his behaviour/because of his fiery determination to rise out of his situation. Vanity has less screen time than the others, but is appropriately sultry and seductive as a sex worker.
This gripping, tight movie isn’t without flaws, the main being Gary Chang's rather grating video game-like score and the somewhat silly ending. Robert Trebor also comes across as too much of a whimpering, camp stereotype at times. Still it’s fine, unashamedly 18 rated thrills, and one of the overlooked gems of its decade.
Runtime: 110 mins
Dir: John Frankenheimer
Script: Elmore Leonard (adapted from his own novel), John Steppling
Starring: Roy Scheider, Ann-Margaret, Vanity, John Glover, Robert Trebor, Clarence Williams III, Kelly Preston
For the most part it looks great, if a little too dark in a few shots. The filtered 1980s colour scheme looks so stunningly rich it could come from a magazine that’s emerged straight from the printing press.
Not so good; there is too much of a background fuzz impinging on many scenes and the soundtrack sounds awfully crackly. It detracts from the viewing experience but isn’t quite bad enough to wholeheartedly ruin it. Comes close at times though.
Reversible sleeve and a booklet by the London-based Badlands Collective, who describe the film’s conception, production, Frankenheimer’s experience of working with Cannon Pictures, its subsequent box office failure due to poor marketing by the company, and an appeal to critical re-evaluation in the wake of the hip 1990s Leonard adaptations Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight.
On the disk itself are the following:
Documentary with a voiceover by 1980s video reviewers Glenn Kenny and Doug Brod about the appearances by several genuine porn actors within the film. Due to the innate secrecy surrounding the industry and its performers some of these are rough guesses rather than definite identifications, but it's still a fascinating inclusion.
Audio commentary by Glenn Kenny and Doug Brod
Entertaining audio by the same duo who presented Hardcore Cameos. Plenty of info about the main actors, John Frankenheimer, how the film differs from the novel, and the critical reception of the time. While Roger Ebert loved the film, another critic called it exploitative and “for connoisseurs of the female breast”. One of the duo narrating here recalls looking for clippings related to the film in the New York Public Library and finding a review he had written himself, where he gave it just two stars. However he admits that it has aged like a fine wine. Well worth the effort of going through the film for a second time.
There’s also the obligatory trailer. Not the most substantial set of extras but enjoyable nonetheless.
A wholly decent presentation of an underrated gem. What’s up with those audio problems though?