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 third and the best of the four movies Burt Reynolds directed and starred in, Sharky’s Machine is often written off as Burt’s attempt at a Dirty Harry like franchise starter since he and Clint Eastwood were often linked as rival '70s macho mega-stars. But where Clint would go on to reinvent himself as an awards bait elder statesman of economical directing, this would unfortunately be Burt’s last memorable movie as a major leading man. (Of course, sixteen years later he would score his only Oscar nomination for his great supporting performance in Boogie Nights). Sharky’s Machine now feels more reminiscent of '70s Italian crime flicks known as Poliziotteschi films than it does Dirty Harry, as these films often dealt with dirty and violent cops in the seedier side of politics, organized crime and prostitution. As Sharky, it’s one of those rare, less winky performances from Reynolds. Though he can’t help but ooze charm, he also creates a sometimes unlikable character as the film veers fairly effortlessly from rowdy Joseph Wambaugh type police station mayhem picture to a Rear Window inspired erotic thriller to a very gripping final confrontation.
Based on a book by the gritty novelist William Diehl (Primal Fear), Burt actually took over direction when his Deliverance helmer John Boorman got stuck finishing Excalibur. Atlanta narcotics cop Tom Sharky is one of those plays-by-his-own-rules badasses who has been bumped downstairs to vice when a sting goes wrong. He's surrounded by a motley crew of great character actors including Bernie Casey (Revenge of The Nerds), Richard Libertini (Fletch), John Fiedler (12 Angry Men and the voice of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh), Brian Keith (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, the original The Parent Trap) and the great Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon, Tootsie, at his most “Durningist”). They are stuck busting hookers to make the town look presentable to a candidate for governor, Donald Hotchkins (Earl Holliman of TV’s Police Woman). It turns out the politician is tied to a high-priced call girl ring led by the Italian sleazoid, Victor D'Anton (Vittorio Gassman, a major Italian actor whose resume before Sharky’s Machine spanned from Big Deal on Madonna Street to the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb!), who is killing off his own women with a hitman played by the always reliably creepy Henry Silva (one of the original Ocean’s Eleven!)Continue Reading