Dir. by John Frankenheimer - 1 hr. 50 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Purely by coincidence, I noticed that "52 Pick-Up" was playing on one of the deep cable movie channels, and decided to record it. The reason that it was a coincidence is that I was in the middle of reading the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name at that time, and figured it would be a rare opportunity to compare the source material with the Hollywood version of the same story in a short span of time, which was not what I was expecting when I grabbed the book off the top of my ever-growing to-read pile. I mean, I'll read Elmore Leonard novels like I snack - pretty much all the time. And Leonard actually co-wrote the screenplay, which gave me a little hope.
The story: Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) gets caught playing around on his wife, Barbara (Ann-Margret), with a much younger woman named Cini (Kelly Preston). A trio of enterprising criminals, Alan (John Glover), Leo (Robert Trebor), and Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III) are in cahoots with Cini, and they blackmail Harry for a tidy sum. Problem is, Harry's kind of a hard-ass, and doesn't want to pay them anything. So the trio up the ante, Harry starts playing mind games, and a blood-bath ensues.
Since this is a movie review blog, lets dig into the movie first. Even if you weren't familiar with the story going in (a problem with having literally just read the book like a week before watching the movie), the story is pretty paint-by-numbers. It's a crime story, and a pretty basic one: blackmail with an unwilling, uncooperative target. One of the main appeals of Elmore Leonard's work is that he's got a way with atmosphere and dialogue, and his books are easy reads that rarely bog down. Sometimes, the plot's pretty decent, but "52 Pick-Up" isn't an example of one of his better plots. The gift for dialogue stays - there are some good exchanges, and the plot is just good enough to not get frustrated with. But in terms of the film, the only real appeal is in the performances by some of the cast. Alan, the porno-theater operating mastermind of the crime, is really brought to sleazy, unbearably sleazy, super sleazy life by John Glover. Robert Trebor has a good monologue in a bar when he's breaking down, and much of the appeal Clarence Williams III's Bobby Shy is seeing what a psycho coke-sniffing hitman might be like if he resembled Dr. Cornel West.
On the whole, this isn't a very good movie. While it functions as a basic crime movie, it's not slick or clever enough to be entertaining, and there's not a lot else going for it. It's not gritty or sleazy enough to hold attention in that manner, either. Sure, the settings are pretty seedy (a porno theatre, a handy-j shack, and some dude's home keeps getting used to make home-made XXX flicks), but the only female character (past Ann-Marget's) that gets any kind of time is a stripper/whatever else you might desire named Doreen (played by Vanity, whom I believe was one of Prince's musical proteges earlier in the '80s), and how to put this...? She's way too beautiful to be working in the place she's working in, story-wise. Past that, this movie doesn't really feel like it has a compelling reason to exist. It doesn't really feel like anyone involved was motivated by anything other than another gig and another paycheck (which doesn't automatically disqualify a creative work from being a good one). And the reason that I know no one involved gave any shits whatsoever is that during the final, climactic scene, which involves a hostage exchange, the scene that, theoretically, the entire film has been building to, one of the actors bumps the camera, and that's the shot that got put in the film. It's such a fundamental error that it's shocking to see it pop up in a film that has more than one person involved that I've ever heard of. The audience being made aware of the camera's existence in a tense scene immediately blows the illusion and shatters suspension of disbelief. And there's nearly nothing worse than a movie with a poor ending, aside from a movie with a poor ending that's been pretty boring up that point anyways.
Now let's turn to the book for a bit. First up, "52 Pick-Up" is not one of Elmore Leonard's better books. I've read a disproportionate amount of Leonard's writing, and this is a pretty pedestrian effort from him. Granted, that still meant it was readable, displayed Leonard's talent for dialogue, and was better than a lot of crime fiction that I've read. And the big appeal of the book, as written, is watching Harry Mitchell NOT freak out when he's being blackmailed. His character is in charge, although not arrogant about it, and knows how to deal with people. Much of the book is inside his head, and the other characters are there to back up that perception, that these blackmailers really don't know who they're messing around with.
As a baseline for what the filmed version would become, there are some fascinating differences. Some streamlining of extraneous characters is to expected, and surely occurs. There are a couple of minor story-lines in the book that don't exactly relate to the main plot, but do illustrate how Harry deals with people that need to be dealt with (the best of which involves a union rep trying to goad Harry a couple of weeks ahead of the scheduled negotiations). In this case, it's a question of how you want to build to the end of the story. Is the story being told that the blackmailers didn't know exactly who they were getting involved with, and then inevitably getting taken apart piece-by-piece, or is the story about whether or not Harry could pull off dealing with these criminals? The book tells the former (and leaves little doubt that Harry will get the job done, although not without suffering a bit), the movie goes for the latter.
The other aspect that I found fascinating was the difference between the book and movie versions of Barbara. If you're familiar with the book, you can literally see the demands that must've come from Ann-Margret. In the book, the character works, and is interesting, but if you reduce the character down to a quick description, she's a housewife who plays tennis, and gets cheated on in favor of a younger woman, sticks by her man, and gets kidnapped and surprise butt-sexed later in the story. Try selling that character arc to any actress in her 40s or 50s, and see how that goes. So instead, Barbara is a politician embarking on a campaign (which weakens Harry's positive motivation - instead of trying to take care of the blackmailers to keep Barbara from having to deal with it at all, he's running scared from ruining her career), gets to kick Harry out of the house (in the book, he chooses to leave in order to give her space. In the movie, it's unclear, but it's played like she kicked him out, and they backtrack that later on when she asks him why he left), even gets a "do you know how this feels" indignant moment. I'm not saying the book version of the character is a juicy character that anyone would want to play, I am saying that the changes made to Barbara's character drastically change the dynamic of their relationship. It's fine to want to see strong female roles, but the alteration of the Barbara character changes the entire film from a man trying to protect his wife from the ramifications of his own reckless behavior to a man trying to not to ruin his wife's career by cleaning up after his reckless behavior, all the while getting yelled at by her for erring. In the context of "52 Pick-Up," you can either have a strong male character or a strong female character, but not both. And since it's ultimately Roy Scheider and not Ann-Marget's withering gaze who has to face down the trio of blackmailers, I would have preferred that the filmmakers had kept Harry strong going into the final series of battles. I mean, she gets kidnapped and drugged anyways, it's not like she ends up being much help, after being unsupportive along the way. So what good is all that increased independence, that weakens the story, after all? At least Ann-Margret can say she didn't play a role where she's only the older, cheated-upon wife (who, in the book, is continually portrayed as being super-hot and desireable - even Harry had decided that she was way better at pretty much everything than Cini, and was ready to put that foolishness behind him when everything went down).
Honestly, this is way more attention than either the book or the film "52 Pick-Up" really deserve. You can find better Leonard novels (try "Get Shorty," for instance) and better movies made from his books (try "Get Shorty," for instance). It's only by a weird coincidence that I read the book and watched the film in a short span of time. I'm not recommending that anyone repeat that; read or watch pretty much anything else based on Elmore Leonard's work, unless you're like twenty books deep into his catalogue already, like me. If that's the case, it's your rabbit hole, man. See you down there.
1 / 5 - TV (HD)