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
The summer of 1975 saw a decline in beach activity and beach resort profits, not because of anything that happened in real life, but because what happened in the cinemas that summer. It was a little film, by a twenty-something director, that due to technical problems was barely able to get out of the water. At the time of its release Jaws may have been the biggest cultural blockbuster since Gone With The Wind. It was all the talk, all the rage, and its effect on beach life and the reputation of sharks is still felt today. But more importantly, hype aside, Jaws is also some good old-fashioned filmmaking, and is still one of the greatest adventure, horror films ever.
In the mid '70s it was rare for a director of a major studio movie to only be in his 20s, but after a string of acclaimed TV movies, including the landmark thriller Duel, Steven Spielberg was called a wunderkind. His first go at the big screen, The Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn, was a well done road picture. Though it was steeped in '70s rebellion, it didn’t come close to revealing just how in touch with the pulse of audiences Spielberg would prove to be.Continue Reading
If nothing else, Marathon Man is relevant as British director John Schlesinger’s last important film. He had been a major force in English cinema in the '60s with Darling, Far From The Madding Crowd, and Sunday Bloody Sunday. In America he made one of the great "Los Angeles movies," Day Of The Locust, and one of the great "New York Movies," Midnight Cowboy (for which he won an Oscar). After Marathon Man his next dozen or so films before his death in 2003 would be completely unmemorable (with the exception of Sean Penn’s stellar performance in The Falcon and The Snowman), sadly ending such a promising career with the horrid Madonna vehicle, The Next Best Thing.
Based on a massive bestseller by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid), Marathon Man is interesting because Schlesinger is able to use the docu-street style he perfected with Midnight Cowboy and his smart, gentle approach to grown-up literature to turn out a really cool, tough, and intelligent thriller. It’s a film with a number of twists, though they don’t always add-up, on the whole it's a taut, gripping, exciting film.Continue Reading
Back in ’77 the film Sorcerer was considered a mega-bomb, both artistically and financially. Coming off the mammoth success of both The French Connection and The Exorcist, it would mark the beginning of an enormous career decline for director William Friedkin. However in retrospect, Sorcerer is one badass action thriller and one of the most underrated films of the '70s.
By the end of the decade many of Friedkin’s peers, that great class of '70s film directors who set a new benchmark with their important and revolutionary films earlier in the decade, seemed to get bitten with the overindulgent bug. After years of hitting it out of the park, a number of these "geniuses" created what were considered duds with would-be epics. Spielberg had the loud 1941, Scorsese made the boring musical New York, New York, Coppola put forth the unwatchable One From The Heart, and Bogdanovich had a string of disasters. And of course Michael Cimino, after the success of The Deer Hunter, would help to sink a whole studio with his artsy Western Heaven’s Gate (which was derided for years, but more recently has found a new wave of critical support). Then it was Friedkin's turn to swing for his home run. For his epic he would do a remake of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's adventure movie, Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages Of Fear). Clouzot had of course also done the greatest French mystery thriller of all time, the more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock Les Diaboliques (Diabolique). Friedkin developed the remake for superstar Steve McQueen to head the international cast. Sorcerer was green-lighted with a budget that in its day made it a big, big event movie. But unfortunately McQueen got sick and then died and the film never made back its bucks. But what ended up on the screen is wildly spectacular filmmaking.Continue Reading