Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
1985 and 1986 were the years that The Cannon Group expanded their productions from small indie hits (Breakin') to shows with big name talent. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus would attend film festivals and put together deals on a napkin & handshake basis, out of which came a number of interesting pictures by directors like Anthony Harvey, Nicolas Roeg and Andre Konchalovsky. 52 Pick-Up brought in once-hot director John Frankenheimer to guide a script by Elmore Leonard, a now much better appreciated author. Reasonably well produced on Los Angeles locations, 52 Pick-Up puts Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret at the center of an exceedingly nasty murder/blackmail plot that never quite comes together.
Aerospace industrialist Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) is married to Barbara, a beautiful politician considering a run for office (Ann-Margret), but the marriage isn't doing well. Arriving at a hotel to call off an affair with a Cini (Kelly Preston), Harry is instead confronted by three masked thugs, Alan Raimy, Leo Franks and Bobby Shy (John Glover, Robert Trebor & Clarence Williams III), who have video of his affair with Cini and demand a huge payoff. Harry tries to maneuver out of the problem without Barbara finding out, but the blackmailers murder Cini and show Harry evidence that points to him as the killer. Harry then tells Barbara and begins a concerted effort to turn the gang in on itself. His first step is finding Cini's roommate Doreen (Prince protégè Vanity, sometimes billed as D.D. Williams), who turns out to be Bobby Shy's girl. Leo is a sniveling coward but Raimy and Bobby reveal themselves as utterly ruthless adversaries.
John Frankenheimer had received high marks for his portrait of California lifestyles twenty years earlier in Seconds. The bad guys of 52 Pick-Up are part of L.A.'s porn industry, and Frankenheimer again uses a party scene to show the decadent lifestyle. While nude porn actresses (including real-life porn star Amber Lynn) circulate and 'perform', Glover's self-styled criminal entrepreneur Alan videotapes everything. The drugs flow and gay 'photo model' manager Leo hopes that he won't have long to wait for the payoff from Harry Mitchell.
Frankenheimer's Hollywood porn party may be completely authentic but it also seems too slick -- everyone in attendance seems to be young and good-looking. As Harry investigates his persecutors, he discovers that Leo and Alan Raimy are scraping financial bottom; Alan runs a miserable porn theater on Western and incorrectly assumes that Mitchell's high-tech fabrication company has him rolling in dough. Harry opens his account books for Alan, who realizes that the most Mitchell can cough up on a yearly basis is $52,000. As that's not enough to split three ways, Alan needs to rid himself of a couple of partners.
The story might be called Yups versus Pervs. Frankenheimer emphasizes the Mitchells' slick upscale lifestyle with their beautiful Holmby Hills house and classic sports cars, but he also wants us to know that they both work hard for their money and are simply in some kind of a mid-life crisis. In other words, being blackmailed is shown to be a useful method of healing a strained marriage.
Alan, Leo and Bobby are by contrast little more than colorful scum. Leo snivels and Bobby makes threats but the egotistical Alan thinks he has what it takes to be a criminal mastermind. Cini was apparently coerced into her relationship with Harry, and her hooker girlfriend Doreen lives in fear of Bobby's mercurial moods. Alan considers them all insignificant pawns. He recites sardonic monologues to Harry while showing him images of his adulterous transgressions.
The movie pushes beyond what general audiences consider acceptable entertainment with an exploitative, realistic depiction of a snuff killing. To show Harry that they've framed him for murder, the blackmailers tie a pleading topless woman to a chair and shoot her repeatedly with a gun heisted from Harry's bedroom. They've even stolen one of Harry's suits to rub in the victim's blood. The ugly scene is too depressing to be shocking, as we know that cruelties like this are probably more common than we think. The current trend in "torture-chic" surely outpaces 52 Pick-Up, but it doesn't make the scene or the movie any less reprehensible. While the girl is being shot, Alain makes snide comments, like one of the robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Harry eventually turns the tables on the bad guys and the movie winds up with a (badly telegraphed) explosion on a San Pedro bridge. The far-fetched mayhem and unconvincing relationships keep us from fully investing in the fantasy. Could victims or killers really be expected to act rationally in these extreme circumstances? The most telling thing about 52 Pick-Up is that even with its gruesome central killing, it's not memorable. I saw it new and discovered that I had forgotten 80% of the story. 1
Roy Scheider is good in a part that requires him to take on near-superhuman qualities. Ann-Margaret isn't given much chance to shine, or even smile. John Glover is the real standout, but we despair of his typecasting as verminous bad guys. I wish he'd have gotten more roles like his kindly and quiet fellow in A Flash of Green.
MGM / Fox's DVD of 52 Pick-Up begins with the Cannon Films logo that I remember getting booed in movie theaters. The show looks fine in a good enhanced transfer, although Jost Vacano's camerawork doesn't match his achievements in other films, especially those by Paul Verhoeven. The clear soundtrack allows us to hear every note of the typical Cannon synthesizer music score.
The audio tracks come in two-channel English and mono Spanish and French, with subs in English. There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
52 Pick-Up rates:
Movie: Good --
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 12, 2007
1. A welcome note from "B", 7.13.07: Dear Glenn: Leonard's 52 Pick-Up, with better casting and a different milieu, would have made a superb little film noir. Mr. Scheider is disastrous casting, in a way -- he's Roy Scheider, for Christ's sake (as Brian De Palma memorably put it, "he killed Jaws"). The only way the Pick-Up setup can work is if the protagonist is completely intimidated and at a loss to act -- and one look at Royboy reacting to threats, and you know these perps are gonna die horribly.
It's a small story: Leonard set his tale in Detroit, and his protagonist is a not overly bright middle-aged moderately prosperous business man who has strayed; he'd be easy pickings. He isn't a star personality, and he isn't married to anybody like Ann-Margret -- he's just a guy. The pleasure is watching him nervously weigh his options and try to decide what to do... and seeing that not only have the thugs underestimated him, he has underestimated himself, as well as his wife. This could have been a rare starring role for someone like Charles Durning, with an Ellen Burstyn or Marsha Mason as the wife. Reading it, it sort of leaps off the page as a gritty, tough but enormously satisfying crime picture.
Leonard liked Frankenheimer's movie, and it's okay, even despite the tacky LA setting, I guess -- but you see everything coming ten minutes away. Reading Leonard's novel, you feel there's simply no way that the guy can win -- that sense, that suspense, is what's missing here. Best, Always. -- B
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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