Thursday, December 27, 2007

Movie: 52 Pick-Up (1986)

Say what you will about the 1980s, but it was the last decade that knew how to deliver quality sleaze.

Novelist George Pelecanos, in a 2005 Sight & Sound article about Elmore Leonard adaptations, describes 52 Pick-Up as:

“the first film that truly captures the beneath-the-gutter atmosphere and acne-scarred, unwashed villains of the middle period, ‘hard’ Leonard crime novels ... This one is sure to be offensive to some, but if the dark end of the alley is your meat, by all means, walk right in.”

The dark end of the alley was not my meat in 1986. At the time I was into stuff like SpaceCamp, which, coincidentally, starred 52 Pick-Up’s Kelly Preston.

Leonard co-wrote the script – to 52 Pick-Up, not SpaceCamp, although maybe he did some uncredited work – and the movie was directed by John Frankenheimer. But the surest sign you’re going to get the vulgar goods comes right at the beginning with the Cannon Films logo.

Roy Scheider is Leonard’s steely protagonist, an ex-military man who has built a successful engineering firm. He’s happily married to Ann-Margret, but is seeing Preston on the side. Little does he know that her interest in him has been orchestrated by a trio of seedy types bent on blackmail. Scheider convinces them he can only come up with a little more than fifty grand, then methodically pits the three of them against each other.

There’s some breathtakingly sordid stuff in Pick-Up, filmed in great lurid L.A. locations. Gotta love Scheider’s interrogation of Vanity in a “modeling studio.”

The movie’s best feature is its bad guys, rightfully described by Pelecanos as “unhinged.” John Glover portrays the ringleader, shooting porn films anywhere and everywhere; in that he’s ahead of his time, kind of a proto Joe Francis. His scene with Ann-Margret’s character late in the action is the very height of lowdown. Glover never lets up. He is magnetically loathsome, or loathsomely magnetic, in every frame. (Glover is an acclaimed stage actor who won a Tony award for his performance as twins in Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, which he then recreated on film. But what do I remember him for? Playing a deranged billionaire, equal parts Ted Turner and Donald Trump, in the underrated Gremlins 2: The New Batch. And now this. It almost makes me feel bad.)

Pick-Up is not exactly a good movie. It’s an enjoyably unpretentious one. It’s mean and it plays dirty. It’s trashy and it knows it. And sometimes that’s exactly what you’re in the mood for.