AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 17TH OCTOBER, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 110 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Harry Mitchell is a successful industrialist living in the suburbs of Los Angeles whose wife Barbara is running for city council while he is having an affair. Harry is confronted by three blackmailers demanding $105,000 for a videotape of him and his mistress Cini. Because of his wife’s political aspirations, he can’t go to the police. Harry’s lawyer advises him that paying the blackmailers won’t likely make them go away, so he refuses to pay. The three criminals decide to up the ante and frame Harry for a murder, demanding $105,000 a year for the rest of his life to keep the evidence they have on him under wraps….
It’s often nice to have a film to review which you hadn’t previously heard of, and so it was the case for me with 52 Pick-Up, the enticements for me being that it was directed by John Frankenheimer, who was truly a top director in the 60’s with classics like Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate to his credit, then kind of lost something thereafter though his movies were still always worth a look, and Roy Scheider, whose air of intensity, vulnerability plus his craggy features which tell so much I’ve always enjoyed watching onscreen. Closer in some ways to film noir than your typical thriller, 52 Pick-Up is a solid watch, admirably gritty and surprisingly uncompromising, but never cracks up the tension as much as it should considering its story, choosing to often switch emphasis from the awful situation that its hero finds himself in to its three rather goofy villains, who are great to spend time with but who almost seem like they belong in a different film [though it’s a film I’d definitely like to see]. The low budget and lack of Hollywood polish do enhance the seedy atmosphere, though the production seems rushed and it looks like some notable material was cut before release.
It was based on a novel published in 1974 of the same title by Elmore Leonard, who has had over half of his crime novels turned into films [most famously Get Shorty, Out Of Sight and Rum Punch as Jackie Brown]. Co-producer Menahem Golan, before he became one half of Cannon Films with Yoram Globus, almost made it in 1975 starring Joe Don Baker, Trish Van Devere and George Hamilton. Then Cannon made a heavily altered adaptation in 1984 called The Ambassador with Rock Hudson, Ellen Burstyn and Rock Hudson which barely got released. Two years later Frankenheimer read the novel and, finding that Cannon owned the rights to it, and not having even heard of the earlier film, approached them and asked if he could direct a movie version. Though Leonard is credited as co-screenwriter with John Steppling, it was actually because Frankenheimer felt that the film used to much dialogue from the book that he deserved such a credit. Though the novel was set in Detriot, the film was initially planned to be shot in Pittsburgh, but due to budgetary concerns was relocated to Los Angeles. Production designer Philip Harrison had to build a nude model parlour in Hollywood when arrangements could not be made with area establishments for a week’s shooting. The film badly flopped and was cut by just over a minute and a half in the UK to shorten to its bare minimum Cini being tied to a chair and shot. Many years later, Leonard still said that this was his favourite of all the movies based on his work.
We first see our ‘hero’ in an aerial shot of him in his swimming pool which nicely establishes the fact that he lives quite a good and affluent life, a life that’s soon going to be thrown into disarray. After we see him leaving for work, he gives his wife Barbara some excuse about having to work late, then goes to visit Cini his mistress. One can’t help but think that it serves him right when bad things then begin to happen to him. In Cini’s room are some masked crooks who ask for $105,000 for a video of him and Cini. Harry makes the mistake of giving them an envelope with no money in it. The crooks then kidnap him and show him a video which shows Cini being tied up and shot in a really nasty scene which has an uncomfortable air of realism about it, superbly played by a young Kelly Preston and given an added cruel element by Alan’s casual narrating of how he shot the death to Harry. Almost as grim is a later one where, after a woman has told Harry some important information, one of the kidnappers Bobby tries to get her to confess to ratting on him by virtually suffocating her with a large teddy bear. The women in this film really aren’t treated well at all which may leave a bad taste in the mouth but is probably realistic. These two-bit gangsters in all honesty would most likely treat the fairer sex exactly in this manner and they inhabit a world where women are disposable and there just to be used.
The kidnappers then demand $105,000 a year from Harry for the rest of his life so that they don’t publish some evidence that ties Harry to Cini’s death, but Harry begins to fight back. His search for these guys takes him into the sleazy underworld and it almost looks like we’re watching something like Hardcore or 8MM for some time, though we don’t really get much sense of a decent guy becoming corrupted by what he has to confront, or trying to fight the corruption off, because Harry has been an immensely flawed character all along, and the exciting potential of the concept is slightly squandered by concentrating so much on our dastardly trio. Though they may be blackmailers, pimps, porno filmmakers, killers and rapists, they’re also somewhat buffoonish, maybe not so much Bobby but certainly Alan, who constantly has a cheerful upbeat air because he always thinks he’s in control, and Leo, a continually grinning idiot who seems to be just along for the ride and is surprised when it involves people getting hurt and worse. This means that tonally the film is rather uneven [I’m not saying films like this shouldn’t have humour, but it seems somewhat forced onto and out of place in this particular one], though I will say that Robert Trebor, Clarence Williams III [a consistently fine, underrated actor who always makes the most of the parts he’s given] and especially John Glover are all terrific to watch and share some chemistry in the scenes they are in together.
It becomes pretty obvious where the story’s headed – it’s not really a spoiler to say that things get even more out of hand and very few characters remain alive by the end – though at least it’s never dull and tries its best not to get silly. Harry is a tough nut, but he never does anything beyond the realms of believability and fights the bad guys more with his wits than his fists, using their different personalities and weaknesses against them, though we do get a half decent punch-up two thirds of the way through shot with very modern style, if not too welcome, ‘shakycam’. There’s also some memorable lines and exchanges, like :“I could be walking into something”. “Buddy, you could be walking into surgery right now”. The best scene in the film though is just between Harry and Barbara. Harry confesses to Barbara that he’s been having an affair, and she seems more bothered by how young the girl is than the fact that he’s been playing away from home. Both Harry’s awkwardness and sudden vulnerability in confessing, and Barbara’s hurt and reactions, seem very real, and Scheider and Ann-Margret play the scene perfectly. It’s a shame that Ann-Margret’s part feels truncated, as does that of Doug McClure’s character who is restricted to a virtual ‘walk on’, while there’s also a really awkward cut from one scene to another where footage has obviously been removed.
By 1986 Frankenheimer’s work had lost most of the distinctive style of his 60’s output, though this movie does contain another odd Seconds-like party scene, this one being full of real-life porn stars, most of them being filmed by Alan [whose main job seems to be as a sex film director]. There are some nice tracking shots, plus also a shot from the point of view of a crotch. He was still also able to get great performances from his cast, with model Vanity also very good in an admittedly cliched ‘tart with a heart’ role, though Scheider was really made for the kind of part he has in this film and I was always surprised that the career of such a dependable actor with such a distinct screen personality soon fizzled out afterwards. Gary Chang’s average synthesiser score really dates the film and sometimes doesn’t match its tone[s] too well, though it was only his second score and he would go on to do much better. Overall I quite liked 52 Pick-Up, but I kept thinking that its characters, even the good ones, belonged in a better and more original story. I’m not sure that it’ll stay with you for very long, but there’s still just about enough in it to enjoy and to make it a worthwhile purchase if you love crime thrillers, while Leonard’s own opinion on the film has got to be given some credit.
Arrow’s Blu-ray gives the film what seems like a nice HD facelift without sacrificing the film’s down and dirty look. There’s just the right amount of grain and colours look very natural and realistic. While not packed with special features, Arrow’s release significantly betters the Region ‘A’ disc from Kino Lorber by adding a very good commentary and a look at the cameos by porno film actors and actresses in the film. The commentary by film critics Glenn Kenny and Doug Brod is the finest I’ve heard in some time, and instead of just hearing a portion of it as I usually do due to time, I was enjoying it so much that I had to listen to the rest. The guys seem like they’re reallly enjoying talking about 52 Pick-Up and don’t sound like they’re reciting from notes. They provide lots of background information and observations, and only really deviate from the subject at hand when one of them, who frankly admits working as a production designer on a porno film and seems to have a great deal of knowledge about the sex industry, talks a lot about porn star Ron Jeremy and tells a funny story concerning him which I probably can’t repeat even on this website. They also made me appreciate the film, which overall I liked but not alot, a little more. It really is a terrific talk track and I hope Arrow get Glenn and Doug to do some more. Also worth noting is that the trailer contains quite a few shots not actually in the film.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM
*Original Stereo 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio commentary by critics Glenn Kenny and Doug Brod recorded exclusively for this release
*Hardcore Cameos, a guide to the many cameo appearances by pornographic actors in 52 Pick-Up
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Reinhard Kleist
*First pressing only: Collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by the Badlands Collective