52 Pick-Up is one of the better of the willfully decadent American thrillers from the 1980s that are chiefly preoccupied with drugs, guns, strippers, prostitutes, money, and the men who kill each other attempting to obtain them. Though this film isn’t generally mentioned in discussions of the various adaptations of novelist Elmore Leonard’s work, the crime master’s imprint is felt on the scenes that routinely threaten to elevate 52 Pick-Up from a sleazy, well-paced time-killer to an authentically good movie. Leonard’s characteristic sense of humor is under-emphasized, but his satirical notion of crime as a business beholden to the same petty political trivialities as more “legitimate” enterprises is explicitly accounted for. When self-made industrialist Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) is blackmailed by a couple of vicious hoods, he remains unflappable while amusingly entering into negotiations with them over the terms of his exploitation. Though this is never fully acknowledged, it’s clear that Harry’s relying on the mercenary skills that account for his success to undermine psychos who resent his wealth, suspecting that he’s just a blue-collar schnook who lucked into the white-collar life. The entire film is driven by Harry’s act of proving them fatally wrong, as he goes to work on them, driving them to circle one another rather than him.
The film’s best scenes explicitly concern this notion of blackmail as an elaborately pretentious pissing contest in which the stakes have been ludicrously magnified. When Harry traces the villains back to a strip club that was used to set him up, he speaks with Doreen (Vanity), a stripper who’s understood to trade on her body as consciously as Harry trades on his illusory wealth. Harry knows that Doreen knows who’s blackmailing him, and so the dance he buys from her reflects seduction as the ultimate transmission of power. This is a familiar theme to the crime genre, but Vanity and director John Frankenheimer notably invest Doreen with shrewdness of agency, which is embodied by a shot that shows her dancing from her own point of view as she looks at Harry. It’s a startlingly empathetic moment, considering that this genre usually depersonalizes strippers as trash to be put out with the other venal bad guys. Harry’s negotiations with the head blackmailer, Alan Raimy (John Glover), a convicted rapist who’s parlayed his contempt for woman into a low-rung job as a strip-club manager, are just as distinctively imagined, particularly the sequence in which Harry invites Alan down to his factory to look at his books to prove that he’s not good for the amount that Alan wants. During these moments, the men could be buddies discussing a potential business investment.
A number of memorable performances, by consistently underrated actors, allow these ironies to reach a fuller bloom than could normally be expected of a lurid 1980s American thriller, particularly one produced by Cannon Films. Scheider pivotally props the film up with his working-class physicality; he’s a performer who can convincingly wear a suit, drink a beer, and work on an insanely expensive sports car. Glover pinpoints Alan’s evasiveness, which indicates a chicken-shit who’s playing at being a criminal as well as some sort of vaguely defined aesthete (a very Leonard-ian touch). Perhaps most striking of all is Clarence Williams III’s terrifying performance as Alan’s partner Bobby Shy, who intensifies the film’s awareness of the troubled relationships between connected or moneyed whites and blacks with a prison stretch under their belts. Williams raises his already high voice, suggesting a paranoid hood who’s rendered almost mute by frustration and rage, especially in a volcanic moment between Bobby and Doreen. 52 Pick-Up loses its sense of social texture in the last third when everyone begins to die by decree of formulaic three-act screenwriting, and its indifference to the plight of Harry’s wife (Ann-Margret) is unseemly, but the film is an often nightmarish gem awaiting rediscovery.
Colors tend to be drab and forgettable, but that’s likely true to the film’s low-budget roots, and to the fact that it’s often supposed to look drab and forgettable. Either way, this transfer represents a competent, unspectacular refurbishing. Skin textures fare best, and grain is appropriately modulated. The comparatively rich sound mix is particularly discernable during the strip-club scenes, which pack an appropriate amount of aurally ambient oomph. Nothing to write home about here, though it’s a miracle this film has received a Blu-ray edition at all.
Just the theatrical trailer.
Though 52 Pick-Up never entirely sheds the sexist and nihilistic shackles of the 1980s American crime film, it’s enlivened by a surprisingly astute understanding of the social varieties of caste power.