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
There is a middle-ground in comedy that transcends generations and surprises us all with its wit and components. Screwball comedies are on one side of this spectrum, and while they hold up great and are considered classics, the heavy traditional overtones and lack of modern humor make them harder to relate to. Not that they aren't enjoyable for the seasoned film fanatic, but with younger and more industrialized audiences, I think they serve a more historical purpose. And then there is current comedy, consisting of mainly crude and sexy plots or dark comedies, both with the possibility of going overboard and disappointing. So it seems that '80s cinema is this middle-ground. I can't think of a movie in the '80s, including dramas, that is not half comic relief. Perhaps the sappy plots only come off as funny now, but I still think a lot of it was intended.
Mischief walks the tightrope between these two worlds and replenishes what is missing or poorly done in either one. Set in Ohio, 1956, it already stands apart from others by being a period piece in a way. Gene (Chris Nash) has just moved into a small suburb with his widower father from Chicago. Here they hope to find peace from city life and to enroll Gene in a new school, on account of him being expelled from his previous one. From the start you can tell that he won't last long in the new town as he takes a break from moving in to ride his motorcycle across all of his neighbors' lawns. The only person who seems more than eager to make his acquaintance is his next-door neighbor Jonathan (Doug McKeon). The two couldn't be more unlike each other; Jonathan in his pastel sweaters and Studebaker, and Gene in his leather jacket and motorcycle. But behind their differences, the two reach out and bond simply on the basis of being outcasts.Continue Reading