Monday, February 18, 2008

52 Pick-Up (1986)

Posted by Steve-O

One of the pleasures of being a fan of classic film noir is finding some old hidden treasure forgotten by everyone. For every big-budget Bogart film there's a dozen of B-movies that are just as entertaining. Check out Decoy, Time Table or Walk the Dark Street (if you can find them) and you'll see good film noir made “on the cheap” could be put together outside of the WB or even RKO studio system.

Neo-noir is the same. For every Pulp Fiction there was a Kill Me Again or Delusion waiting to be discovered on a dusty video store shelf.

Producers Golan/Globus of the Cannon group were known in the 80s for putting out trashy films. Their movies would usually contain Chuck Norris, over-acting character actor Wings Hauser, ninjas or some sort of combination of the three. In 1986 they surprised movie lovers by putting out an exploitive thriller that was actually pretty good. That was probably due to people hired to make 52 Pick-Up.

Writer Elmore Leonard must have been relieved when he found out his novel (and screenplay) was to be directed by thriller expert John Frankenheimer. The Cannon Group also did a great job with the cast by convincing some excellent actors to appear. Roy Scheider, Vanity and Clarence Williams III in particular brought the books characters to life. Female lead Ann-Margret (in her 40s at the time) playing Scheider's wife gave more to the role than should have been expected.

From the start to finish the film plays just like a Leonard novel. A new-money business man (Scheider) is blackmailed by three sleazy characters after having an affair with a sexy 22-year-old. They plan on giving video tapes to Mitchell's wife if they don't get 105-thousand from the business man. John Glover (playing one of the thugs Alan Raney) would say what everyone in the movie audience was probably thinking after seeing that Mitchell's wife is Ann-Margret and girlfriend is Kelly Preston, “I like your taste in women!” At first, the criminals have the upper hand catching Harry Mitchell off guard. They assume Mitchell is soft and will fold quickly. They turn out to be wrong when Mitchell fights back. With a few clues, he searches for his blackmailers identities in the dark corners of L.A.'s strip clubs and adult film world. Eventually he finds all three men and (in classic Leonard style) trick them into turning against each other. Lots of twists and turns follow ending with an extremely satisfying climax.

Roy Scheider starred in a lot of blockbusters. However, he had hit a lull in the mid 80s. Films like 2010 and Blue Thunder should never be compared to The Seven-Ups, French Connection or Jaws. I think 52 Pick-Up ended up being his last critically successful lead role before moving to supporting roles.

In this thriller his New-York-style acting chops probably make the film much better than if stone-faced Charles Bronson was cast in the lead. Scheider's tanned leathery face in closeup always showed what he was thinking. When he turns from victim to judge-and-jury in this one it's totally convincing. Scheider, when first confronting the wonderfully slimy Golver, has a classic line, “You just have a face I just want to slap the shit out of!” That's was Scheider's best line since “We're gonna need a bigger boat!”


Ann-Margret's part in the film is beefed up compared to the novel. She has her professional life to think of in addition to humiliation when the blackmailers first strike. Her performance is just right especially in the scenes where she and Scheider try to keep their marriage together despite being hurt by her husband's cheating and the pressure brought on by the sleazy blackmailers.

Then there's Clarence Williams III. He plays a doped-up stone-faced killer that's not as tough as you would think he is. Williams steals every scene he's in just by looking bad ass. A great role for him.

It's worth noting that Doug McClure is billed above Williams in the credits. Clearly the film has been trimmed before release since McClure has one line in the film and Williams is a major character. I imagine the film was a lot longer but it was edited just right. There's not fat - it's all meat. That actually makes the film feel like a quick-read Elmore Leonard mystery.

Is the film trashy? You bet it is. It's filled with 80s porn stars, one particularly violent murder and plenty of nudity. That is to be expected from a Golan/Globus production. But it doesn't mean 52 Pick-Up isn't a crackling little neo-noir. It is. Despite the exploitive nature of the film (as well as Ann-Margret's sholder pads, lots of eye makeup and a Miami-Vice sounding soundtrack) this is one very satisfying film. The low-budget, forgotten 52 Pick-Up deserves to be seen again.

The movie poster: One note about the poster. Scheider is shown holding a gun. In the film he never uses one. In fact he makes a point out of saying he never shot the gun he owned for protection in his house.

Side note: Roy was always one of my favorites. Check this out:


Nate B. said...

Man, I wish Scheider had not passed on! A great and underrated actor. Great choice for a noir of the week! In some respects this film strikes me as the very definition of a neo-noir.

Vince said...

Great take on an underrated and very trashy movie. Premiere's Glenn Kenny recently revisited it and made a note of all the mid-'80s porn stars who make appearances in it.

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