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 novelist Thomas Harris created the character of Hannibal Lecter for his Red Dragon book series, he had written one other novel entitled Black Sunday. It was a terrorist thriller obviously inspired by the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The adaptation for the screen by legendary screenwriter Ernst Lehman (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) provides the setting for one of the best action flicks of the 1970s and another cool movie notch in the belt for director John Frankenheimer. Along with The Deep released the same year (’77), Black Sunday would provide the peak role for actor Robert Shaw as a big star leading man, before tragically dying of a heart attack the following year.
A kinda sexy Palestinian terrorist, Dahlia (Marthe Keller, who played a similarly spooky Euro a year earlier in Marathon Man) finds the perfect boyfriend—Vietnam Vet Mike Lander (Bruce Dern, in his full whacked-out mode) who works once a week as a Goodyear blimp pilot for the NFL. To make a point about America’s support for Israel, she convinces him to fill the blimp up with explosives and blow up the Super Bowl. (Oh yeah, the President is going to be attending the game, too). Luckily, badass Israeli intelligence agent David Kabakov (Shaw) is on her tail.
Like the adaptation of Frederick Forsy...