Films that have a moral condemnation about the seedy underbelly of life but still try to offer up a little titillation along the way have been around since the beginning of cinema. Sleazeploitation, if you will. Think of all those sexy pre-Code films and then consider the gangster and later noir period when the arousing exploits of a hatcheck girl would be stymied by the censors, making sure we knew this was amoral behavior. By the '70s and Midnight Cowboy, the sex industry had become a full-fledged and often legal enterprise and shock was less easy. Sleazeploitation films often deal with an innocent seeing the seedy world that has been around him all this time (and usually in such sleaze capitals as New York or Los Angeles). It's most interesting when big name directors make these films; of course when guys like Brian De Palma (Body Double) or Paul Schrader (Hardcore) make films about such subject matter it’s not shocking because they have a dark history in exploitation-ish cinema. That’s what make one of the great sleazy thrillers of the '80s, 52 Pick-Up, all the more interesting. It was directed by the great John Frankenheimer, a guy who was an innovator in the early dawn of live television and by the '60s was a major director of classics The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds and Seven Days in May. In the '70s he generally moved to straight but tasteful thrillers like French Connection II and Black Sunday, but he ended the decade on a sour note with the mutant bear horror dud Prophecy. The '80s meant mostly forgettable work for hire, including 52 Pick-Up, which in ’86 was a box office bust and mostly written off by critics as trash--and I can sorta see why. But on a recent screening, I was struck with just how intense and exciting it actually is; this is a film that may have a cornball dated score and we may laugh at the clothes, but it actually ages well and deserves reexamination as a possibly important film by an important director.
If the name Frankenheimer wasn’t enough to bring some class to 52 Pick-Up, consider this; it’s based on a book by one of America’s all-time great crime novelists, Elmore Leonard. At this point only his early Western novels had transferred well to film (3:10 to Yuma, Hombre). 52 Pick-Up had just been adapted into a film called The Ambassador with Robert Mitchum and Ellen Burstyn to little notice in ’84, and the following year Burt Reynolds would star in the horrible Leonard adaptation Stick. It really wasn’t until the '90s that Leonard adaptations would hit their zenith with the trifecta of Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. For Frankenheimer, Leonard adapted the book himself (with John Steppling), changing the setting from his hometown of Detroit in the book to, of course, the more glamorously seedy Los Angeles.Continue Reading
Before film books exploded as a genre in the 1970s, the most significant published books about the art of film were James Agee’s two volume Film I & II in ’48 and ’52 and Pauline Kael’s works on late '60s film criticism, I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But the most relevant book on film -- the one that is still of major importance today -- was Hitchcock/Truffaut by the great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Starting his career as a very influential film critic and essayist for (among other publications) Cahiers du Cinéma, he is usually cited as the inventor of the “auteur theory,” which gave the director the final artistic credit for the merits of a film (as opposed to the producer, who in Hollywood was just as often considered a film’s true maestro). He, along with other young French film fanatics, would begin to branch out and direct their own movies; they became the group now known as the French New Wave (or The Nouvelle Vague), which includes Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Agnès Varda. This crew of filmmakers can be considered the original movie brats, as opposed to the generation of directors before them. They were raised on movies and cinema culture and also were keenly aware of a director’s body of work as a whole instead of by individual movies. (The American generation that came to prominence in the '70s was actually called “the movie brats.” This term was applied to Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma and Scorsese, who were obviously deeply influenced by their French forerunners).
Another major influence on Truffaut and his friends was an appreciation for Hollywood B-Movie and genre directors, who were under-appreciated in America: journeymen and mavericks like Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher and strangely, Frank Tashlin. And while Truffaut also adored the acclaimed masters like Ford, Hawks, and Welles, his favorite was Alfred Hitchcock. Though his career went back to the silents (he made the very first feature-length British talkie), and he was usually considered box office gold and was as famous a director as there was, in the early '60s Hitchcock was still usually dismissed in American and British critical circles as strictly a popcorn director. Truffaut single-handedly set about changing that. Beginning in ’62 he started recording long, in-depth conversations with Hitchcock (aided by his American collaborator and translator Helen Scott), covering his entire body of work. He spent years compiling and editing them, and adding intricate frame-by-frame photos from his films. Finally, in ’67 the book Hitchcock/Truffaut was published and helped to change Hitchcock’s reputation from a pure entertainer to a true artist and is still today considered a bible for filmmakers and movie geeks.Continue Reading
With post-Vietnam War movies there is a “Vietnam Vet taking down his enemies” genre that would include the pulp biggies Taxi Driver, Billy Jack and First Blood, as well as pure vigilante exploitation films like Eye of the Tiger, Vigilante Force, The Exterminator, The Annihilators and Gordon’s War (not to be confused with the ‘Nam vets that appear as crazies in Targets, Black Sunday, Skyjacked and Earthquake or the zombie vets of Cannibal Apocalypse). Somewhere between pulp and vetploitation lays the very intense and violent Rolling Thunder. This was director Joe Flynn’s followup to his interesting crime thriller The Outfit. Paul Schrader (most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) wrote the screenplay though he claims it was reworked away from his original intention by credited co-writer Heywood Gould (Fort Apache the Bronx and Cocktail). Either way Rolling Thunder definitely carries Schrader’s signature theme of the lonely loner on a self-destructive path against society while seeking his own kind of redemption.
The film opens with Denny Brooks’ ballad “San Antone,” which was used similarly in The Ninth Configuration (he also sang the theme to the Chuck Norris choppy-socky Breaker! Breaker!). After spending years as POWs, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (a very young and very intense Tommy Lee Jones) finally return home to Texas. Of course, we know from our film studies, going as far back as William Wyler’s WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives, that returning vets have a tough time readjusting. And Rane is no different. His pretty wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards of TV’s Dark Shadows) tries to help him ease back into civilian life, but he senses she has moved on (it’s obvious she has been involved with a local cop), and his son doesn’t even remember him. Rane suffers from PTSD and is emotionally distant, even turning down the advances of a young military groupie, Linda (Linda Haynes). The town tries to make him feel welcomed with a parade, a new car and over two grand in silver dollars (one for every day he was in captivity).Continue Reading