By Linc Leifeste | March 7, 2015
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: Elmore Leonard (novel, screenplay), John Steppling (screenplay)
Starring: Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, Vanity, John Glover, Robert Trebor, Lonny Chapman, Kelly Preston, Doug McClure, Clarence Williams III
Ahhhh, the 80’s. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Actually, it was mostly the worst of times for pop culture, in my opinion. Although 52 Pick-Up, a 1986 thriller directed by John Frankenheimer, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, is almost enough to make me second guess my take on the 80’s. By combining the lean, concise dialogue of Leonard with turns by pre-80’s stars such as Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret and Clarence Williams III, the 80’s-cocaine-saturated feel of the on-the-cheap production, the clothes and hair of the too-many-cigarettes-leather-tanned stars, the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack, the bad-guys involved in the porn industry…it’s all balanced out into some weirdly great, bad-80’s perfection.
Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) is a successful businessman, long-married to his faithful wife Barbara (Ann-Margret), who has been carrying on a fling with a beautiful young thing, Cini (Kelly Preston) (as Barbara points out after finding out about the affair, her marriage to Harry has been around longer than his new girlfriend has been alive). Unfortunately for Harry, Cini is connected to some very bad men, who have made video recordings of the two cavorting and confront Harry with their tapes, demanding $105K a year to keep his secrets safe. In a great scene, Harry opens his books for lead henchman Alan Raimy (John Glover) and illustrates that despite outward appearances, he’s cash poor.
Alan decides to up the ante, committing a stomach-turning realistically portrayed snuff killing with a gun stolen from Harry’s home, letting him know that if he doesn’t agree to a reduced offer, he’ll really be in for it. Harry is horrified but makes the decision to turn the tables on Alan and his two sidekicks, using his wits to outsmart the vicious but not-so-bright trio and in the process turning them against one another. They soon realize they’ve chosen the wrong victim but by then the game is too far along for it to be stopped.
A truly dark film, there are lots of moments of completely believable sheer evil, thanks mostly to the pitch perfect performances as sick baddies by John Glover and Clarence Williams III. Alan is the most evil of the bunch, because he combines some brains with his complete lack of a moral compass (although he’s clearly not as smart as he’s convinced himself), whereas Bobby (Williams III) is a straightforward and completely convincing violent bad-guy and Leo (Robert Trebor) is nothing more than a whiny, sniveling accomplice who is lacking in anything more than the willingness to take an order and do as he’s told as long as there’s no danger in it for him.
Scheider, a star a bit past his prime, is perfectly cast and delivers a solid performance as a reluctant tough-guy while Ann-Margret delivers an affecting performance as the long-faithful wife, who is considering a run at local politics at what should be the prime of her life, only to have it all derailed by her husband’s inability to control his baser urges. At it’s core, 52 Pick-Up is a solid and wickedly delightful thriller that borders at times on being excessively nasty, a near-perfect marriage of timeless subdued direction and story with a few completely over the top moments.