52 Pick-Up Review

52 Pick-Up might not be the best thriller you’ve never seen but it certainly deserves more of a reputation. Several elements account for its having been overlooked. It comes from an excellent Elmore Leonard novel, an author who it was agreed was great on the page but lousy on film (this being the era of Stick and a decade before Get Shorty). The leading role is taken by Roy Scheider, a solid actor who never became a star no matter how hard he tried.. It was directed by John Frankenheimer in one of his frequent fallow periods. Finally, and most disastrously, It never received a proper international release due to the hopeless marketing strategies of Golan and Globus – I finally caught it playing second feature to Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce at a seedy cinema in Blackpool.

This is a shame because 52 Pick-Up is a taut, entertainingly scuzzy thriller which is distinguished by good direction and a witty, intelligent script, co-written by the original author. It was Cannon’s second crack at Elmore Leonard’s novel – the first, The Ambassador, was a misbegotten venture memorable only for being Rock Hudson’s last film. This time, they had the good sense to hire John Frankenheimer, a once-great director whose talent was being squandered on lousy material. The project seems to have injected some life into the veteran director and he does a clean, crisp job of storytelling, making the most of a plot which twists and turns in a very satisfying manner.

Roy Scheider, often something of a void in leading roles, is highly effective as Harry Mitchell, a successful businessman whose seemingly happy marriage to Barbara (Ann-Margret) is threatened when his affair with Cini (Preston), a nude model, is discovered by a group of three criminals. They demand $105,000 in exchange for the evidence of his affair. When he refuses to pay, his blackmailers record the killing of Cini on tape and frame Harry for the crime. Faced with a long prison term, and the potential ruin of his wife’s political career, Harry decides that he has to take action. Instead of paying the blackmailers, who have decided they want a yearly payment of $100,000, he begins to set them against each other leading to a series of ingenious narrative turnabouts.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot since much of the fun of this kind of film comes from not knowing what happens next. But, despite the good work by Scheider and a very game Ann-Margret, it wouldn’t be so much fun without the extravagant trio of villains. John Glover, always a reliable supporting player who never made it to the first rank, is hilarious as the garrulous Raimy, whether blackmailing Harry with the snuff video – “The best thing about Cini is that she not only lives her part, she dies it too” - pretending to be an insurance salesman, going over Harry’s books like a suave chartered accountant or sighing “I honestly don’t know what the world is coming to,” when Harry refuses to pay for the video. Robert Trebor is surprisingly touching as the confused, terrified Leo, owner of a ‘Live Nude Models’ club and the sort of man who perpetually looks as if he has a toupee but couldn’t find it in the wreckage of the morning after the night before. Then there’s the great Clarence Williams III, perhaps the most terrifying actor in regular Hollywood employment and a man who can scare the crap out of you by doing nothing except standing still. When he says,” “When a man pulls shit on me, he’s either very brave or very stoned,” you actually believe he’s capable of living up to the threat.

Don’t get me wrong. 52 Pick-Up isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination. As with most Cannon product, there's a slightly bargain-basement feel to it in some respects – notably Gary Chang’s synth score which screams 1986 at you from the moment it begins – and there’s some violence towards women which seems a little excessive, particularly the murder of Cini which was cut for the original UK release but is now present in full. It’s also rather baffling why Ann-Margret’s character is so marginalised as the film goes on –we hear about her political ambitions at the beginning but this is then dropped completely. But it’s all highly enjoyable nonsense which moves along briskly, doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence and, thanks to Jost Vacano’s cinematography, looks beautiful – there’s a scene set on the LA coast roads at night which makes the place look like the fields of heaven.

The Disc

This DVD release is a typical MGM no-frills affair. The anamorphic 1.85:1 image is pretty good. The picture is sharp without being over-enhanced and the colours are striking throughout. This is certainly as good as I’ve ever seen the film looking. The Dolby Surround soundtrack isn’t as impressive, being largely two-channel mono apart from some occasional moments when the score comes into its own. The original film was made in the cheap ‘Ultra-Stereo’ process favoured by Cannon at the time, which probably explains the poor transition to disc.

There are plenty of subtitles available but no extras. The menus use those irritating icons which MGM are so fond of.

52 Pick-Up deserves your attention. It’s one of the few films made by John Frankenheimer during the 1980s which is even in the same ball park as his masterpieces like The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds. Of course, it’s not in the same league as those films but if you like a strong, adult thriller then this might well be to your taste.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 08:12:18

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