Elmore Leonard is rightly identified with the special grit of Detroit, an American manufacturing colossus visited by rack and ruin as the world’s love for the Big Three turned to rust. Leonard’s works from the 1970’s reveal a once-genteel Detroit going rancid after the late sixties’ riots while its suburbs filled with moneyed white refugees nonetheless still spiritually tethered to the city and its fading glory.
One of those books, “52 Pick-up,” captures that tension beautifully in the character of Harry Mitchell, a successful industrialist who finds himself being blackmailed by a trio of scumbags looking for an easy payday from a scared pigeon anxious to protect his hard-won manicured life. Mitchell’s been banging a shapely ninny and the scumbags have the film to prove it. If Mitchell eventually outwits his opponents, it’s because he can tap into the street-smarts and nerve of his blue-collar roots in spite of the emasculating influence of suburban comforts.
For a long time I’ve marveled at how well director John Frankenheimer was able to relocate “52 Pick-Up” from Detroit of the 70’s to Los Angeles of the 80’s. Frankenheimer is best known for his work in early television and films such as “The Manchurian Candidate” and “French Connection II.” He used the language of cinema with economy and swagger to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The Los Angeles that Frankenheimer conjures in “52 Pick-Up” is so far removed from the glamour of Hollywood, you can see Detroit. In other, later adaptations of Leonard’s work, LA appears either neutered or glamorized. “Get Shorty” is too shiny and glib; “Jackie Brown” is too suburban and understandably juvenile in that special Tarantino way. Frankenheimer goes on Skid Row and stays there. This is a film about adults made by adults. Frankenheimer’s Los Angeles is a sun-blasted hell-hole that attracts the young and the naked and the aging vampires who suck their blood and their pussies. “We’ve been married longer than she’s been alive,” remarks Mitchell’s wife, Barbara (Ann Margaret), when he confesses his affair. Overwhelmed by the news, she retreats to their bedroom where a large dollhouse sits enigmatically in the corner.
Mitchell (Roy Scheider) has to best his opponents on their home turf to keep them from besting him on his. And what turf his is – a beautiful pile complete with a swimming pool where his wife keeps her super-structure in super shape. “You swim good,” announces Alan Raimy (John Glover), the chief scumbag, as he leers at her from the edge of the pool, waiting to spirit her away at gun-point to a cheap motel to entice Mitchell to finally pay up.
“52 Pick-up” was a Cannon Film Group production, that shady if savvy enterprise of the 80’s commanded by a grisly duo of Israelites, Golan and Globus. Cannon may have given us “Rambo” but it also delivered “Barfly” and “Runaway Train,” two superior films that thumbed their noses with equal aplomb at the retrograde, brittle conservatism of Reagan’s America.
Frankenheimer doesn’t try to make the film more than it should be. His chosen aesthetic belongs to an 80’s skin flick from one of the better studios in the Valley, at once sterile and seedy. The music is tepid synth-pop that seems looped until a minor key swell appears to signal menace or pathos. Numerous porn stars of the mid-80’s make cameo appearances, including Amber Lynn and Ron Jeremy. And why wouldn’t they? The VCR was re-making the porn industry into a vehicle for wealth and edgy celebrity. In the book, Mitchell watches his illicit affair unspool on the tattered screen of a downtown Detroit grindhouse. In the movie, he watches videos of his trysts on a VCR in the posh love nest of his mistress, narrated in piquant detail by the silver-tongued Raimy.