Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Friday, 7 January 2011

52 Pick-Up (1986) (MGM DVD, 2004) 106 mins.

'One dumb move and these animals rush in', observes blue-collar guy turned successful industrialist Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) as he contemplates how his life has been turned upside down after he has an affair with a stripper called Cini (Kelly Preston) and is subsequently blackmailed by a trio of Los Angeles lowlives, Alan Raimy (John Glover), Leo Franks (Robert Trebor) and Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III). These criminals have filmed footage showing Harry in compromising situations with Cini and want a six-figure sum for the videotape (this is the 80s).

However, Harry - who intended ending the affair at the same time as his wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) is selected to run for political office - won't pay and can't go to the police for fear of derailing Barbara's political ambitions. He also realises that once he starts paying the men, they will probably keep coming back for more. So, when Harry repeatedly refuses to pay, the blackmailers raise the stakes considerably when they murder Cini and cleverly frame Harry for the crime. Harry must either pay up or bring his military experience, street smarts and skills into play as he attempts to turn the tables on the men who have turned his life upside down.

This is a dark, tense, gritty and rewarding adaptation of a 1974 Elmore Leonard crime novel, partly adapted by Leonard himself, directed with an eye for the convincingly low-life milieu by John Frankenheimer and is a film that hasn't received its dues down the years and remains almost forgotten a quarter of a century after its original theatrical release. A possible explanation for this is that the film thoroughly immerses itself in the sleazy porno netherworld inhabited by its villainous trio (Raimy owns a porno theatre and appears to have ambitions to make it as an adult film-maker, Leo manages a strip club and Bobby appears to be a pimp).

The depiction of this involves frequent and often prolonged female nudity - particularly from Kelly Preston during a hard to watch filmed 'snuff movie- style slaying and 80s pop star Vanity, some strong sexualised violence and occasional walk-ons by 80s porn performers like Ron Jeremy (who even receives thanks in the end credits), Jamie Gillis and Amber Lynn - often in various states of undress - that lend the film a genuinely convincing seedy ambience that may have scared some critics away from endorsing it (even though it was well-received at the time by US critics Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin from The New York Times) and may also have been a turn-off for mainstream audiences.

Scheider is his usual reliable self as the somewhat tarnished and not particularly likeable hero (actually, there aren't many likeable characters populating the film), but it's the villains who really steal the film from under him. John Glover in particular as the weaselly, cowardly but persuasive ringleader of the blackmailing trio who thinks himself smarter than he is steals every scene he appears in, Robert Trebor convincingly sweats and squirms the deeper he is reluctantly drawn into a scheme that spirals out of control whilst Clarence Williams III lumbers around as the dangerous and possibly psychopathic cocaine-snorting 'muscle' with a hair-trigger temper.

The plot satisfyingly twists and turns its table-turning course and holds the interest throughout as Harry cleverly exploits the criminals' paranoia, fear and greed by gradually turning them against each other and, overall, this is an often gripping, occasionally unpleasant and sordid Leonard adaptation that deserves to be more highly regarded and widely seen.

VERDICT: Pick up!

AFTERWORD: At the time of writing, this is available on DVD in the US and UK. Interestingly, the same production company, Cannon Films, also produced an earlier adaptation of the novel as The Ambassador, which was directed by J. Lee Thompson two years earlier, and relocated the action to the Middle East. This earlier adaptation currently remains unavailable on DVD even though it boasts a strong cast, which includes Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson (in his final screen appearance), Donald Pleasence and Ellen Burstyn.

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