This one’s a solid thriller…but you might want to shower afterwards.
I love Cannon Films, the studio run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus which was responsible for most of the trashy exploitation movies of the 1980s. I also love that by the mid-to-late ‘80s, Cannon was trying to branch out into more “respectable” fare — bigger name stars, more prestigious filmmakers. What I love most of all is the notion that their 1986 production 52 Pick-Up is supposed to be one of these respectable efforts, because it’s an unbelievably sleazy movie.
Based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, 52 Pick-Up casts Roy Scheider (Cohen & Tate) as Harry Mitchell, a successful businessman cheating on his wife (Ann-Margaret, Viva Las Vegas), who happens to be running for city council. It turns out the girl, 20 years his junior (Kelly Preston, Jerry Maguire), was a set-up, sent to seduce him so that he can be blackmailed for $105,000 (eventually negotiated down to a first payment of $52,000, hence the film’s title) by three pornographers (John Glover of Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Clarence Williams III of Reindeer Games and Robert Trebor of The Shadow), who possess videotape of Harry and the girl. Harry is stuck; he hasn’t got the money to pay, he doesn’t want to lose his wife or for her to lose her campaign and, before long, he’s being framed for murder. What’s a guy to do?
There was a trend in the ‘80s towards movies in which normal upstanding citizens were lured into dark, seedy undergrounds subcultures. It’s seen in everything from Hardcore to Body Double to Blue Velvet. 52 Pick-Up belongs on that same list. And while it may sound like trash on paper — let’s be honest, it’s basically trash in practice — it’s very well made trash courtesy of director John Frankenheimer, a script co-written by Leonard and a terrific cast anchored by Scheider and Glover as the movie’s respective (anti)hero and villain. Schneider is such an underrated actor; it’s only in recent years that I’ve come to appreciate just how much better he makes every project with which he’s involved by underplaying his every emotion. Glover, a character actor who has only given one bad performance (I’m looking at your, Batman and Robin) is so good at playing a loathsome scumbag that it’s a shame he didn’t get to do more bad guy work. Only Ann-Margaret is wasted, but that’s because after a promising start she is given less than nothing to do but the typical damsel-in-distress routine. Then again, don’t get me started on this movie’s gender politics.
John Frankenheimer knows how to make this kind of movie. As a filmmaker who made his bones directing live TV, Frankenheimer knows how to keep a taut pace. He has an eye for compositions that increase the tension and ratchet up our paranoia: no matter how much depth of field is on display, he keeps everything in the frame in focus. The resulting images don’t hold our hands and tell us where to look. Actors’ faces appear too close the camera, crowding our space and making us feel off-balance. He knows how to make a thriller — the guy made The Manchurian Candidate and Ronin for crying out loud — and 52 Pick-Up is yet another well-crafted thriller. It’s not his best work, but it gets the job done.
52 Pick-Up is one of the many former MGM catalogue titles to make it’s Blu-ray debut thanks to Kino Lorber, who give the film a fine but no-fills HD treatment. The 1.85:1 widescreen image gets a 1080p polish, but that’s really all it is — a polish, not a complete makeover. The image is relatively bright and clean, with only occasional flaws like scratches or debris and a softness that’s not uncommon for this type of catalogue release. The lossless stereo audio track is serviceable but on the hollow side; the dialogue is clear and the soundtrack is mostly well-balanced (until the end credits), but the action is thin at times. There are no subtitles and not a single extra feature has been included — not even a trailer.
There are a lot of reasons to check out 52 Pick-Up. One is because it’s a great example of Cannon attempting to mix (either intentionally or because they simply don’t know better) a more traditional A-list movie with their usual brand of sleaze. One is because of the performances from Scheider and Glover, who make perfect foils for one another in the way that everything one actor internalizes the other turns into showy spectacle. Ultimately, though, it’s because the movie is a good example of the genre — a little archaic, a little brainless, but effective and well made. Sometimes that’s as good as it gets.