Another Outposter contribution! Wrenage returns with one of his customary Retro Reviews and this time he tackles a movie featuring the everyman’s everyman Roy Scheider – 52 Pick-Up. First, a question.
How many topless women can you fit into a mainstream movie? 52 Pick-Up (1986) attempts to answer this age-old question. I tried to keep track and gave up. Let’s just call it a plethora.
52 Pick-Up is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard. Leonard was a noir/western-writing machine. Movies based on his work include Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma and Mr. Majestyk. The well-regarded TV series Justified was also based on his work. Leonard was responsible for delivering this gem of writing advice:
“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
Since you are dealing with a guy who understands how to deliver plot, 52 Pick-Up generally works as it weaves its tale of an unfaithful husband, sleazy crooks and blackmail.
52 Pick-Up stars Roy Scheider. As the world winds down, one appreciates Scheider’s talent more each passing year. He combined a potent one-two punch of everyman persona with a quiet emoting that gives the viewer room to project their own feelings onto his character and participate in the film by empathizing with what is happening to him.
Sure, Scheider’s skin is like shoe leather, and his eyes droop, but he had that indefinable “it” factor. He effortlessly makes the audience invest in him in a way that plastic people cannot. He’s got soul leaking out of his ears.
Ann Margret plays Scheider’s wife. Margret was past her bombshell, Elvis-dating days in 1986. She is believable as a hard-working wife who gets shunted aside for a newer model. I especially enjoyed the scene where Scheider admits his infidelity to her. It is wonderfully understated compared to how it would be filmed today.
Today, characters would be screaming, crying and screwing their faces up into great expressions of anguish as they went for an Oscar nomination. Scheider and Margret simply have a conversation, rather than a tantrum, which ends with Margret leaving the room.
Looking up Margret, I was surprised to see she didn’t fit the bombshell stereotype. After her fling with Elvis, she married a guy in 1967 and stayed married to him until his death in 2017. And she got to star in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Good on you, Margret. You won at life.
When it comes to the villain element, 52 Pick-Up goes with a three-headed monster. The beta male of the group is familiar, yet not widely-used, character actor Robert Trebor. You might recognize Trebor as the motel clerk in Universal Soldier and the producer in Hail, Caesar! I bet Trebor could have made an effective Penguin in a Joel Schumacher Batman film. Trebor is greasy, bald, pathetic and gay in 52 Pick-Up. It is interesting that his gayness is not shoehorned in, like it would be today. Trebor’s sexuality makes sense within the movie’s world.
The muscle of the bad guys is played by Clarence Williams III. Williams is great at giving crazy eyes. I always tend think of his turn as the pseudo-Cryptkeeper in Tales From The Hood when I hear his name. Williams gives my favorite line-reading in 52 Pick-Up. As another character lists reasons Williams should be worried, he calmly turns around and asks:
“Do I look nervous?”
I was surprised to see Williams died just over a year ago. I didn’t see any news on his passing. I reckon he wasn’t well-known enough to get much press, but he is remembered by the likes of us. Vaya Con Dios, Mr. Williams.
The leader of the villains is played by John Glover. Glover uses what is apparently a Baltimore accent in 52 Pick-Up, since he grew up in the Baltimore area. Glover is the best part of 52 Pick-Up. He does great sleazy. Yet, his character isn’t completely one-dimensional. He could have taken a different course in life, but he liked money more than morals.
Another nice scene is when Schieder invites Glover to look at his accounting books. Glover puts on a pair of glasses and proceeds to whip through the ledgers with the line:
“I bet I can read these faster than your accountant…”
52 Pick-Up has familiar faces in other small roles. The great Doug McClure, who battled people that time forgot, land that time forgot, warlords from Atlantis and journeyed to the earth’s core puts in a token appearance. 52 Pick-Up also features Kelly Preston in an early role. Preston plays the girl Scheider has an affair with, which is understandable. Finally, Vanity stars as Preston’s friend. Vanity also flirted with bombshell status back in the day. Unlike Margret, she got chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood debauchery machine. Vanity ended up a drug addict and died relatively young. Apparently, she found Jesus before she went, however, and she spent her final years giving talks on the religious circuit.
It should also be noted that John Frankenheimer directed 52 Pick-Up. Frankenheimer is interesting in that he swung between classics like The Manchurian Candidate (Angela Landsbury should be recognized as an all-time great villain in that film) to mutant-bear movies. I dig that about Frankenheimer. I also quite like Ronin, a rare movie that allows Sean Bean to live.
Finally, 52 Pick-Up was brought to us by the 80s super duo of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Yes, 52 Pick-Up is a Cannon Film. I miss Cannon Films. I recently watched Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, which is a prime example of turd polishing. Way too much time, effort and money got spent on that movie. It had a sheen to it that it didn’t deserve. It needed to be done in the style of a Cannon Film.
Now that we have all of the ingredients listed, how does 52 Pick-Up come out of the oven? Its first act sets the stage nicely. Its second act does a solid job of raising the stakes. Its end is also decent.
Unfortunately, things flounder a bit in its third act. The caper fizzles as focus gets removed from Scheider, and the bad guys implode. In theory, these choices aren’t technically wrong. Yet, the movie doesn’t feel like the most satisfying decisions were made from an entertainment standpoint.
Basically, Scheider wins because of the financial peculiarities of his net worth, which fractures the bad guys, rather than by truly turning the tables on his opponents. For this reason, 52 Pick-Up does not achieve classic status. It’s simply a decently-entertaining neo noir film that gets by on casting and vibe.