52 Pick-Up (1986)


After a clandestine love affair with a sex worker, a well-respected and wealthy businessman, played by Roy Scheider (The French Connection and Jaws), finds himself in hot waters with a group of ruthless blackmailers.

Reaction & Thoughts:

This neo-noir delivers tons of thrills. It’s also smarter than it appears at first glance. Based upon crime specialist Elmore Leonard’s 1974 novel, 52 Pick-Up is one of the best Leonard adaptations to date. The film also marked a return to form for director John Frankenheimer (Black Sunday) — this is one of his most underrated movies.

Leonard’s novel was written in the ’70s, but 52 Pick-Up does a remarkably  good job echoing Reagan-era ethos. The noir hero is usually portrayed as an outsider, a person suffering from social alienation. In this case, however, the male protagonist is the poster child for mainstream values: a powerful self-made man who leads an idyllic life with his wife in picture-perfect suburbia.

52 Pick-Up shows us in graphic detail the impact of deviating from conservative orthodoxy. The “hero” must navigate through the country’s “permissive culture” — porn, entertainment industry, etc. — in order to find redemption and salvation. And he must do it in collaboration with his wife, who stands by her man despite his sins. Whether you agree with the movie’s moral point of view or not, one has to conclude that this is one of the most interesting aspects of the film — a thriller as a metaphor.

If you aren’t into deep thinking, don’t worry, 52 Pick-Up offers plenty of excitement. The hard-boiled dialogue is fun — author Leonard co-wrote the script — and the film has a slew of colorful characters that will delight the casual viewer.

The old movie adage applies here: “a movie is as good as its villain.” 52 Pick-Up works because it’s packed with original, colorful baddies. John Glover (The Chocolate War) is deliciously over-the-top as the gang’s leader. Clarence Williams III (Purple Rain) is fun-scary as a wacko killer — I wondered if Williams’s hit-man was the inspiration for Javier Bardem’s killer in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men.

Ann-Margret’s realistic performance as Scheider’s wife is the film’s secret weapon. She infuses the film not only with class, but also with humanity. The actress plays the only true victim in the movie, so you immediately connect with her. Ann-Margret was smart enough to underplay her role, creating an instant contrast between her and the rest of the cast. The late Vanity (Action Jackson) has a key role as a prostitute.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Some aspects of the film don’t bear close scrutiny, but overall, 52 Pick-Up is a gritty, suspenseful and kind of raunchy thriller with unexpected twists — this is John Frankenheimer at his latter-day best! Color, 115 minutes, Not Rated.

9 responses to “52 Pick-Up (1986)

  1. How did I miss this one? I’m a sucker for Ann-Margret and I’m looking for a movie I can use as an episode of “Sports Analogies Hidden in Classic Movies” so I can tell a story about her and a short-lived, but legendary romance between here and a baseball player form the 1960’s.

    Liked by 2 people

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