Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Forgotten Movies - John Frankenheimer's 52 PICK-UP

In honor of Larry Aydlette's Welcome to L.A. John Frankenheimer tribute comes this tribute to one of my favorite Frankenheimer films, 1986's 52 PICK-UP. All HQ 10 readers are advised to check out Welcome to L.A. and this wonderful tribute to this great American filmmaker. Great work, Larry!

There are a lot of things you can say about Cannon Films, but you can’t deny that within all of the crap and muck of the Chuck Norris and AMERICAN NINJA, they actually did find the time to make some terrific movies. Golan and Globus were known to be pretty crazy (or at least Menahem Golan was) and pissed away their money on a number of substandard films, but they did know talent when they saw it, which is why the likes of Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Franco Zeferelli, Barbet Schroeder, Norman Mailer, and Hebert Ross made pictures there. They were generally not known as meddlers, although they were always committed to their release dates and certainly were cheap, no question about that. There are numerous stories about Cannon shortchanging filmmakers (usually at the last minute), but the best Cannon pictures are usually the ones that were delivered by total pros who knew how to operate within the Cannon confines. Quick, cheap but good was not impossible, and for my money there’s no better example of this than John Frankenheimer’s 52 PICK-UP, a film which, the more I think of it, is probably my favorite Cannon film of all. I know I said that about LIFEFORCE some months back, and I love them both, but LIFEFORCE is crazy and stupid, while 52 PICK-UP is crazy and smart, and that every time in my book. It’s great sleaze made with great style and I’ve come to love it to death.

The main thing that makes 52 PICK-UP so damn good to me is in that it’s an excellent match of director and material. The film is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard (which Cannon previously adapted 2 years earlier as THE AMBASSADOR, shot in Israel by J. Lee Thompson with Robert Mitchum), and it seems as though Frankenheimer could have directed nothing but Elmore Leonard adaptations for the rest of his career and he would have made one terrific picture after another. Those who know Leonard’s work know that he really understands the criminal underworld pretty well and never skits back from presenting it as it pretty much is, so part of what’s great about 52 PICK-UP is how Frankenheimer understands this, too, and likewise doesn’t hold back. They give us a great team of villains taken straight out of the book and don’t sugarcoat them in any way; these guys are pretty fucking brutal. But they’re not as smart as they think they are (they attempt to blackmail businessman Roy Scheider with the murder of his mistress, only to learn that Scheider is in debt to the IRS), which makes them even more dangerous. One of the great things about Leonard’s writing is that he knows that criminals are generally not as ahead of the curb as they think they are, which is how they get caught or get the better of, but he also knows that because they’re criminals and murders, they don’t really care about what happens to them or to others, and that’s part of the thrill of the story. When things go south they really go south, and while it’s great to see these guys get theirs, there is also an understanding that they will most likely come back shooting, so the fun is in watching how pissed they’re going to get and how Scheider is eventually going to get back at them. In that regard, 52 PICK-UP ends like a motherfucker.

All of this also makes 52 PICK-UP a great Cannon movie, too. It’s pretty obvious to see the appeal of the material to Cannon – it’s got all the ingredients that the 42nd Street and Hollywood Boulevard audiences would want – and Frankenheimer doesn’t dare class it up. It’s got some pretty brutal killings, lots of nudity, and it wallows in its late-80s porn scene setting (all you fans of that era will notice a lot of familiar faces in those scenes), but that’s what this film needed. Hell, even Gary Chang’s totally 80's synthesizer score works just right. Frankenheimer knew he had to keep this gritty and dirty or it wouldn’t work. He also cast this one beautifully, getting John Glover and Clarence Williams III (later a Frankenheimer regular) as the villains, and they’re two of the best of the era. Glover, with his Philly accent and Wesley education, is terrific, a real hoot in a lot of ways but also smooth and deadly in the most appealing of ways; only Dan Dureya could have delivered a performance this alluringly dangerous. Williams, meanwhile, really does come across as a guy who’s done time, and to see him always cleaning his gun and looking behind his shoulder without cracking a smile you get the feeling that he’s the one who can take this whole thing to hell in a split second. But it’s because 52 PICK-UP has two solid leads in Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret that it works like a good thriller or film noir should. Both are enormously appealing actors, instantly likeable, and you feel what they’re going through in an instant and don’t want to see them go through all this horrid shit. You want a guy who looks like he can convincingly outwit three crooks and even kick their ass, and that’s Scheider all the way. Once he’s figured these guys out and has them in his pocket, much of the delight in this film goes to seeing him turn it to these guys, and he also does a fantastic job with all of the sweet Elmore Leonard dialogue (Leonard may be the best dialogue writer in all of crime fiction), so much so you wished he could have done all those hypothetical Leonard adaptations with Frankenheimer (though they did reunite for THE FOURTH WAR, which I have yet to see). Big props, too, to Frankenheimer’s great use of backstreet L.A. locations. Hell, there ain’t nothing wrong with this film at all.

Happily, 52 PICK-UP is available on DVD from MGM, and even though there are no supplements, the transfer is lip-smackingly beautiful and the disc is quite cheap (only $15), so it’s definitely worth the purchase. I’m proud to place it with all the numerous Frankenheimer films on my shelf.

1 comment:

Samuel Wilson said...

Glad to see someone else recognizes 52 PICK-UP for the sleazy treat it is. That film is one of the most underrated of the 1980s.