Movies We Like
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.
Roy Scheider (ebbing out of his unlikely status as a major leading man) plays successful entrepreneur Harry Mitchell. His devoted wife Barbara (Ann-Margret), after years of self-sacrifice, is finally getting a chance to make her mark by running for public office. A monkey wrench is thrown in to Harry’s idyllic life when a group of masked hoods threatens to expose his affair with a much younger beauty, Cini (Kelly Preston). Harry doesn’t trust that they will stop with one payoff, and at the risk of ruining his wife’s budding career he ignores their financial demands. So to make their point they graphically murder Cini. Now Harry is in deep and decides to start to take the law into his own hands with the help of a call girl from their inner circle (played by the one-named Vanity of Action Jackson, formally part of singing group Vanity 6 who was replaced by Apollonia as the lead in the band and in the movie Purple Rain). The creeps--played brilliantly by John Glover, Robert Trebor and Clarence Williams III (Prince’s dad in Purple Rain!)--are incredibly memorable. What makes them interesting is besides being sleazy they are complicated, and thanks to Leonard’s dialogue they are given some great verbal jousting. As Harry gets closer to tracking them down he is exposed to their world of porn, strip clubs, prostitution and drugs. Harry and the main creep strike a deal about the money, but Harry is able to use his newfound knowledge of how the creeps play the game to turn them against each other. It’s a great battle of wits as well as a perfect tour of Los Angeles’ less attractive '80s locations.
Everything about 52 Pick-Up has an ugly grimness to it. Though we root for him, our hero Harry is less than heroic; maybe that is why what works best in the movie are the bad guys. Glover, in particular, is fantastic here, a respected theater actor who (though he worked like crazy over the years) never really had that breakout film role to make him a big name. 52 Pick-Up should have been that role. His performance alone is worth the price of admission, making him one of the great movie creeps of the '80s. Since catching 52 Pick-Up on cable as a teenager I’ve always written it off as sexy junk. How wrong I was. Yes it’s Sleazeploitation (with a touch of modern noir), but it’s incredibly suspenseful and full of surprises. And that shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me now; you have a master craftsman working with a hall-of-fame writer and a sharp cast giving us more than meets the eye. Maybe it’s old age, but so much of what I blew off as a kid I can now appreciate: Neil Diamond, asparagus, Tums, solid back support, fresh air, etc. Add 52 Pick-Up to that list.