Thursday, November 21, 2013

Longer Than She's Been Alive

It’s a funny thing, thinking about the movies I didn’t go to when I was a teenager. For starters, I’m surprised now that there weren't more scuzzy action films. I went to the movies all the time, sure, but some of those things didn’t interest me as much. I can remember going to see CYBORG w/Van Damme in the spring of ’89 more because it was a science fiction than anything else and feeling like I’d been suckered into watching what turned out to be a low-budget post nuclear wasteland bore. Ah, the glory of Cannon Films. To give an idea of where my head was at in those days for a while I’d associate their logo with the music sting that kicked off Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake of INVADERS FROM MARS, not any random Charles Bronson movie from the period. Hard not to have a little nostalgia for that outfit now along with slight amazement at the range of their films—not just the trash but the good stuff they made, particularly things like BARFLY and RUNAWAY TRAIN. A few of them fall somewhere in between their action vehicles and actual good movies. Those are pretty interesting too.
And, as always, you gotta love John Frankenheimer. Of course, that wasn’t the exact reason why his thriller 52 PICK-UP turned up at the New Beverly back in September for a rare screening. Instead, the occasion was a double bill tribute to the late Elmore Leonard with the second half being Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN of course. But 52 PICK-UP is why I was there. Based on Leonard’s 1974 novel and released in November 1986 it’s a den of sleaze and porn which just happens to contain a fairly impressive pedigree for the likes of Cannon and, incidentally, imagine the lousy alternate universe version of 52 PICK-UP rejiggered for a Bronson vehicle. As for Frankenheimer, this was a middling period for him at best, several years since he had made a film for a major studio with his previous effort being the barely remembered thriller THE HOLCROFT COVENANT. Roy Scheider, not even two years past the release of 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT at this point, was nearing the end of his leading man run. Ann-Margret hadn’t done that much in the 80s and it’s probably still a surprise even now to see her in this kind of movie. 52 PICK-UP isn’t the strongest piece of work by those involved but it is solid, enjoyable in its particularly scuzzy way and I pretty much loved getting to see a gorgeous 35mm print of it, long after I’d figured that I wasn’t going to get to ever do that. Face it, sometimes things don’t get much better than seeing the Cannon logo on the New Beverly screen.
Los Angeles industrialist Harry ‘Mitch’ Mitchell (Roy Scheider) has a successful business, beautiful wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) who is about to run for city council and a blonde 22 year-old mistress named Cini (Kelly Preston) on the side. All seems to be going well when a trio of blackmailers led by Alan Raimy (John Glover) confront Mitch with a videotape of him with Cini and demand payment for it. But when it turns out Mitch isn’t quite so willing to just hand over his money they take action, turning things more brutal than he first imagined. With his target now unable to go to the police Raimy demands even more money from Mitch but when he opens up his books to show how much he actually has, and what he really doesn’t, Mitch is not only able to negotiate for less money he’s able to use the opportunity to turn the three of them against each other.
Actual grown-ups are such a rare sight in movies these days and it becomes even more startling to see them now in a film like this. 52 PICK-UP features grown-ups, each a little worn down by where life has gotten them to by this point starting with a married couple who don’t have very much left to say to each other even amidst secrets being kept and characters who are fully aware of the jeopardy they’ve gotten themselves mixed up in. There’s an authenticity to this marriage aided, I imagine, by a director in his 50s (Frankenheimer married his second wife Evans Evans in 1963 and they remained together until his death in 2002) so it feels like there aren’t any easy reasons for why certain things happened and it’s going to be tough to patch them up. Scheider’s Mitch presumably spends much of his time either driving or tinkering with his beloved Jaguar convertible instead of paying attention to his wife—even the way he reacts to his predicament is always believable as if both director and star, just a few years apart in age, agreed that if faced with a similar predicament in real life at first they would be scared shitless but then they’d just be fucking pissed. It’s a film where everybody’s worn down by what’s happened to them in life, even Mitch’s 22 year-old mistress Cini (“Cynthia,” as he corrects himself when saying her name, probably to make it not sound so frivolous) played by Kelly Preston who you’d think the film would only present as the hot young sacrificial lamb with nothing else to her. It’s not a great film. But it is a good, solid thriller and the level of maturity as each of the characters try to feel their way through all this only adds to its effectiveness.
The Elmore Leonard novel was actually used by Cannon a few years earlier as the source for J. Lee Thompson’s THE AMBASSADOR, a film which reunites the director with his CAPE FEAR star Robert Mitchum, features Rock Hudson in his final theatrical role as well as 51 year-old Ellen Burstyn doing a nude scene, but it really has very little to do with the book. Frankenheimer’s version (screenplay by Elmore Leonard and John Steppling) correctly does its own thing and is an appropriately nasty piece of work, giving Roy Scheider a terrific part to play and for the director it’s an appropriately forceful, violent piece of craftsmanship as sleazy as it all is. The presence of Scheider as the lead character in this sort of film playing scenes where he questions Vanity as she removes all her clothes in front of him provides an odd sensation like running into my dad in a strip club not to mention the unexpected sight of Ann-Margret getting drugged up by John Glover. Among other things, the vibe also provides a cool little unheralded sweet spot of the eighties, somewhere apart from the slick pop feel of Joel Silver (this is just before the likes of LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD) along with displaying the solid professionalism of Frankenheimer and his crew. You can also still get a whiff of the Cannon house style with views of the porn world that it seems to be reveling in as if it’s part of a movie that isn’t aware how it’s actually pretty good. And it is. Scene after scene features the director’s visual expertise along with some cool L.A. location work like a brief scene filmed during an actual Dodger game and use of the area around the docks down by San Pedro like an number of other films made during the mid-80s. Hell, just watching Roy Scheider make his way through traffic while crossing over Santa Monica Blvd by Vine is pretty cool all by itself.
The careful plotting (the screenplay is credited to Leonard and John Steppling) does a smooth job of laying out the characters as well as not always giving us every piece of information before it’s necessary—an early confrontation between Glover and Ann-Margret has a genuine kick since we don’t know exactly what he’s up to at that point and there’s always this sort of danger around giving the feeling that something, anything could happen with the clarity of how it’s all presented by director of photography Jost Vacano (right before shooting ROBOCOP) makes it all the more dangerous even in the privacy of the character’s homes. It’s that Frankenheimer vibe of seriousness crossed with the details that get us to pay attention during every step of the plot as the very 80s Gary Chang score pounds away, the fiscal realities involved in the blackmail plot that the movie dotes on makes what happens queasily believable (“Everybody owes the government!” Mitch reminds one of the crooks—they’re all in the same boat much as it disgusts him) as well as even more darkly funny particularly during any moment when John Glover’s slimy blackmailer is onscreen. At one point Scheider enters the lobby of a porno theater looking for him and having to pay before he can go up to the office, asks the ticket girl if the movie playing is any good. “Beautiful,” she replies without any interest. 52 PICK-UP takes these offhand moments and they add up so like every Roy Scheider film should it gives him plenty of chances for him to have a ‘knock this shit off’ attitude as he plays these three vividly drawn sleazes against each other. It seems like all of the characters at various points are trying to figure out exactly how they got into this mess and we can see the wheels turning in their head, sometimes knowing what to do but usually not. The characters matter as much as the mechanics of the plot and since they’re so fleshed out that plot doesn’t seem quite so mechanical.
In the book “The Films of Frankenheimer” by Gerald Pratley the director reports that Cannon was surprisingly easy to deal with during the making of the film with even the cuts that Menahem Golan suggested during post-production being unexpectedly minor. Funny, but I can’t help but think that they could have gone even a little further so I’ll say that some of the final film could be tightened up here and there, particularly in the second hour since when it gets to the ninety minute mark it starts to feel like the movie should barrel towards the climax already. A few changes could maybe even have clarified the suspense at a few points—something is revealed to us at one point which could easily be a surprise a few scenes later if it had been held back, that sort of thing. But the suspense is there, the dark humor is there, the particularly nasty violence is there and Frakenheimer always knows how to toss in these moments in just the right way—one particular horrific scene involving a certain videotape being viewed is topped at the end when Scheider’s character realizes exactly where he’s been sitting watching it the entire time. The moment is nasty and unexpected and you know there’s no way he’ll ever fully get that out of his mind, no matter how he ever turns the tables on his blackmailers. It’s not a film about everything falling apart in the bleakest way possible. It’s a film about a lead character who knows he fucked up and is trying somehow to put a few of those pieces back together again while blowing it all up in the process. Not the most fatalistic take on a plotline which could easily be found in a late 40s-early 50s noir but in life sometimes you really do have to deal with the messiness of picking up the pieces.
It’s an excellent cast and it’s a kick to just watch them play off each other continually trying to figure out what the other is up to. Roy Scheider bangs his way through every scene, completely believable as this guy no matter how harried he gets and furiously real as he finally takes control. Ann-Margret, who over a decade before this film appeared with Scheider in the L.A.-set THE OUTSIDE MAN, offers a good example of an actress bringing more to a part than what’s on the page, I suspect because her director allowed her. You can totally read the bitterness, the disappointment in her face that’s come from this life and the realization her marriage has amounted to nothing. The political campaign subplot seems to fall by the wayside by a certain point (prominently billed Doug McClure ultimately doesn’t do much at all) but the anger she’s allowed to display goes a long way. It’s a particular kick to see her in scenes with someone like John Glover who is totally dynamic as this sniveling weasel who has certain smarts to work with, resulting in a bad guy who is smarmy, arrogant and genuinely dangerous. Because he’s no dummy that makes him all the more dangerous but he’s still a total pain in the ass at the same time (“Something about your face makes me want to slap the shit out of it!” yells Scheider at him after doing just that).
Kelly Preston is only around for a few minutes but she makes them count, showing how this world has basically killed her even before the worst has happened and Vanity is particularly striking in how she controls the screen as her friend who takes the risk of confiding in Scheider, displaying total confidence as she strips down before him and projecting genuine vulnerability later on. Making one of several appearances for John Frankenheimer (including REINDEER GAMES, playing a role not all that different from here) Clarence Williams III doesn’t play a single moment or deliver a single line the way you’d expect him to, terrorizing somebody then leaving as he hums what sounds like an old Burt Bacharach song I can’t quite remember and when it comes right down to it a genuine threat who is ultimately just a real pain in the ass. As the third of the group, the perennially sweating Robert Tervor isn’t quite up to the actors he’s sharing the screen with but the character is supposed to be such a weakling (“STOP WIMPERING!!!” Clarence Williams III screams at him at one point which seems like it comes from the actor as much as the character) that this almost makes the chemistry work. I should mention that to go along with the sordid milieu certain real-life porn stars can be spotted during the party scenes, including Amber Lynn and Ron Jeremy. For the record, you understand.
“I really fucked up, didn’t I?” says a character at one point in 52 PICK-UP. It’s not so much a funny line as an honest one since, well, he did. Sometimes we all do. Like I said, 52 PICK-UP isn’t great but it is nastily effective and it is nice to see a movie where characters are aware of the gravity of what’s going on and what they have to be willing to give up to get things back to normal. But of course nothing ever gets back to normal. I’ve written before about the time I interviewed John Frankenheimer and there’s not much to add about that here. As far as I can remember, the subject of 52 PICK-UP never came up not because it was a forbidden subject but because there were so many other films and subjects to get to. But Frankenheimer made so many movies that it’s only natural that you can’t get to all of them (his next theatrical film DEAD-BANG is one I have gotten to but not 1990’s THE FOURTH WAR which reunited him with Scheider). And in this one you can see him digging in, taking a well-crafted story and infusing it with his own sort of filmmaking power, a level of craft that all too often you don’t get these days and offering just the right capper at the end. Always in control of itself, 52 PICK-UP isn’t a great movie but it is a good movie as well as being one with the Cannon logo at the start. A good yarn. Satisfying. No-nonsense. Nothing wrong with that. Anyway, that does it for now. Since it’s also uttered by a few characters in this movie there’s just one thing left to say--So long, sport.


LilOgre said...

Thanks for the read Peter. I remember I saw this one with my mom, courtesy of the local videotape rental store when I was about 11/12. We turned it off right after John Glover got Ann Margaret high. Had to wait about 6-7 years to see it again when I was in college. It always seems so disturbing to me, like these Hollywood stars of another age are just getting tortured and put through the ringer - even though it's "just a movie", they were still acting in it. Anyway, thank you!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much to you Miguel! Glad you liked it!