Directed by John Frankenheimer
Screenplay by Elmore Leonard and John Steppling, from a novel by Elmore Leonard
Starring Roy Scheider, John Glover, Ann-Margaret, Vanity, Kelly Preston, Clarence Williams III
For awhile in the early 90s, my wife went on a Roy Scheider kick. We ended up renting and buying a lot of films by Scheider and I grew to appreciate him as an actor, even though quite a few for his films really weren't all that good. The one surprise in the lot, though, was a tense thriller called 52 Pickup, which turned out to be an excellent film on many levels.
Elmore Leonard, considered one of the greatest crime writers of his time*, adapted the screenplay from his own novel. Scheider plays Harry Mitchell, whose is having an affair with Cini, a girl half his age (Kelly Preston). When porn king and all-around sleaze Alan Raimy (John Glover) finds out, he blackmails Harry, since the information would be disastrous for the political campaign of his wife Barbara (Ann-Margaret). Harry refuses to pay, so Raimy kills Cini, and frames Harry for the crime. Harry has to come up with the money, and also wants to take down Raimy for the murder.
The film is nicely plotted, with great dialog from Leonard. Harry becomes a real hero getting himself out of the mess, and the movie knows enough to make sure that Raimy is a top-notch villain. He's childish, vicious, violent, smart, and everything bad, and Glover's performance is memorable, and one of the greatest villains in film history. The best part about it is that he is so unpredictable. I want that in a bad guy -- someone who you can never be sure of.
The entire cast does a terrific job. One of the surprises is Clarence Williams III, best known for his TV work on The Mod Squad,** who is chilling as on of Raimy's co-conspirators.
Director John Frankenheimer had established himself as a top-tier director in the 60s, with Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May. He stumbled a bit in the 70s and clearly was past his prime by the 80s. 52 Pickup may have been his last artistically satisfying film (though, like most of his later films, it was not a hit).
The movie gained mixed reviews, mostly because of the sleaziness of the porn film background*** and the film sank off the charts. By the time video became commonplace, it was just another forgotten film. The movie isn't for everyone, but for a dark, hard-nosed crime film, this is hard to top.
*He has not been well-served in films, though Jackie Brown is an exceptional film.
**Where he was once required to deliver the line, "I can dig it" with grave seriousness, a sure sign he had talent as an actor.
***One scene, at a party, included several well-known porn stars of the time (clothed).