Masks and material
Remarks on John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up
52 Pick-Up, a film sadly overseen during his initial run in 1985, is probably one of John Frankenheimer’s more interesting late entries. It is the second adaptation of a thriller novel by Elmore Leonard – the first was done by Cannon regular director J. Lee Thompson in 1984 (The Ambassador) and moved its plot far away from the source, while 52 Pick-Up stays stunningly close and true to Leonard’s hardboiled dialogue-style and neo(n)-noir aesthetics.
New-Hollywood-star Roy Scheider – who became iconic via Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1974), where he is the over-anxious cop Martin Brody – plays the L.A. business-man Harry Mitchell. This executive type is well-equipped with his expensive car and villa as well as his attractive wife (Ann Margret) just starting her career in the city council. His life is turned upside down, when three masked hoods appear showing him a videotape of him and his mistress (Kelly Preston). They want 105,000 Dollars. Mitchell refuses to contact the police to protect his wife’s political ambitions.
Harry Mitchell immediatley appears to be a typical Frankenheimer-‘anti’-hero – he fights with his intelligence instead of physical force and starts playing with the gangsters on their own ground. Therefor he is not exactly the typical Charles Bronson-style vigilante character of the Reagan-era of the early eighties. While Mitchell is tracking down the hoods and tries to turn them against each other – which works out at first – the psychopathic leader Alan (John Glover) kills the mistress, a deed the gangsters also film on video, and threatens Mitchell’s wife. Mitchell has to go further – in his own way.
52 Pick-Up, a film buried in the bankruptcy of the Cannon productions studio and only later discovered as a video gem, on the first glance tries to cash-in on the then fashionable Death-Wish-plot, which was the idea of most of Cannon’s films at the time – a normal citizen confronted with depraved gangsters fighting for his own right and taking the law in his hands. In fact Frankenheimer’s effective thriller plays mostly on the psychological level and shows the triumph of tactic and intrigue over archaic violence.
The film is originally cast and can be seen as one of the most effective adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s hardboiled writing on the screen to date. The delicate balance between humour, drama and thrill is still there, spiced with some unsettling scenes of snuff-violence. The most interesting aspect is Harry Mitchell’s attempt to keep his all-day-identity intact while working out his intrigue against the kidnappers. This fight for the perseverance of ‘normality’ is also reflected in the visual style of the film lingering between the ’glitz’ of the Hollywood-Hills and the noir-flavour of the red-light-districts.
The film begins with some panorama air shots of Harry Mitchell’ house outside of Los Angeles. The business man seemingly leads the life a satisfied rich man. Synthie beats by Gary Chang develop the theme of easy going routine in the world of the rich and secure. His wife watches him lovingly, but also with a strange touch of knowledge.
He leaves with his silver sports car, while she also goes to work in a business costume. Floating camera travelling shows their respective ways to work. Harry works in industrial metal and deals with explosives, while she applies for a local political position.
When the couple talks on the phone the wife clearly has a knowing gaze. And indeed Mitchell uses his spare time to visit his mistress Cynthia. But instead of her this time three masked men await him in her shadowy, noir-style apartment. They present him a video showing him and Cynthia, his recent all day double life and his wife. 105,000 dollars is the price for this intimidating tape. Even if we only hear their voices, three characters are already present: a cynic, a fool and rap-style ‘gangsta’.
At home Mitchell has a hard time not to show off in front of his wife. For a long time we only see his face in the foreground, while she works behind him. Again the camera pans back to her, as he hesitates to answer. Masks are what their lives dominates: social masks, but also emotional masks in front of each other. They reduce their relationship to pure materialistic presence.
At work Mitchell tells a friend of his situation. In fact he decided to end the affair at the time he was kept hostage by the gangsters. He decides no to go to police because his wife candidates for council woman of the 13th district of L.A. He does not want to threaten her position. In an impressive melancholic moment Mitchell leaves her election party to get a cigarette. The camera begins to pan back, his face in focus, accompanied by toned down horn harmonies on the soundtrack. As he reaches a window where he can observe the party from the outside, the official and the private room are mingled: We see a photo from happy times showing the couple as if Mitchell’s gaze and his inner vision melt. And in fact the next scene is his confession. He knows that trying to hide this from his wife will weaken him. He tries to play it down: “She’s just a kid,” he says. Barbara insists that their marriage lasted longer than Cynthia has been alive. As he tries to defend his position referring to his loneliness she seems to resign and leaves the room: “You have no idea…” Secretly Barbara watches her husband leave home again by night.
Frankenheimer continues with his associative montage in cutting from this scene to a wooden building with a huge American flag. As the camera moves closer we see Cynthia at a window, staring sadly into the darkness of the night as if reflecting her abuse as a tool in this dirty business: the blackmail of Mitchell with whom she really fell in love. Behind her pop music is pounding and one of the gangsters, the cynic Alan, moves a video camera through the masses of half naked people, as if making a gonzo porn. In fact this scene, in which we see porn star Ron Jeremy in a whirl pool amongst naked girls, reflects the change in the adult film industry in the beginning of the eighties, when the hay day classic 35mm-porn was overrun by a majority of cheap direct to video hand held stuff like filmed here. In his portrayal of this new and totally corrupted porn industry Frankenheimer is clearly on the moralistic side.
Cynthia obviously feels dirty and outworn. She wears pragmatic jeans clothing and marks herself as not part of the scene (any more?). Only her black girlfriend Doreen (played by eighties-pop-star Vanity, then girl-friend of pop singer Prince) seems to care. Cynthia looses her will to live. As the cynic Alan Raimy tries to film her, she violently refuses. Here we see a clear expression of hate in his eyes. He gets her thrown out – only the beginning of fatal events, which we will see. While his gay buddy Leo and rapper Bobby Shy are mainly freaks, Alan is clearly a greedy and dangerous psychopath. And it is he whom Frankenheimer’s direction focuses upon.
At the office Mitchell is offered two tickets for the Dodgers – for him and his girlfriend it says. In fact Bobby is to meet him there to receive the money. Shocked the three gangsters realize later that Mitchell handed them fake money. Alan is out of his mind and immediately overreacts to a passer by. Metal beats on the soundtrack clearly signify a rising danger – a stylistic means well known from Cannon-produced thrillers of the time with Charles Bronson.
Again the montage creates a suspenseful association: Barbara comes home and Alan waits for her posing as an insurance agent. She immediately senses the danger. At the same time Alan calls her ‘slim’, an equivalent to naming his pals ‘sport’. In the car we see the purpose of his breaking in: He has stolen Mitchell’s jacket and his gun. The music now signifies the fatal stream of events by a melodic, nearly bombastic but pulsing synthie-track.
As Bobby forces Mitchell into a darkened room things turn rough: The man is held captive. He senses with shock what he has to witness here. In Alan’s typical gonzo-style camera-work we see how Cynthia is shot with Mitchell’s gun. A piece of wood in front of her breasts is proof of the reality of this execution. We see her shooting in slow motion, see the holes in the wood and the gunshot wounds in her breasts. This brutal and intense scene is remarkable as being probably the closest a narrative film actually came to being an actual snuff-movie. Alan clearly acts as the director of this scene and even gives a director’s running commentary, while Michell is the unwilling audience being confronted with the unnameable: a true crime made into a cynical music video-clip.
The idea of snuff-films showing the real torture and death of human beings goes back to the series of so-called Mondo-documentaries in the 1960s as well as the film Snuff (1972) by Roberta and Michael Findlay that fakes the killing of a naked couple for sexual pleasure. This film is actually the extended version of a originally shelved C-picture called Slaughter (1970) that already referred to a death cult like the Charles Manson-Family. Ed Sanders’ popular account of the Manson-affair The Family (1975) later spread to rumour, the Family might have made snuff-films at the Spahn ranch themselves and came up with the phrase snuff. Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1978) moralistic account of a father saving his daughter from the L.A. porn industry also refers to snuff films said to be made in Latin America – where ‘life is cheap’. Frankenheimer goes the certain step further and states: In every purely commercial and materialistic system life can be cheap. It is material to be used and consumed – the ultimate pornographic philosophy.
To close the circle Mitchell finally realizes that it is the actual site of the murder that he sits on: A shock signified by his shivering face in a close shot. He takes the Mulholland Drive with full speed. This time Frankenheimer uses no music but actual car sounds to dramatize the situation. When Mitchell has finally reached the mountains at sunset a crystal-like harmony underlines his crisis which clearly leads to a certain decision.
The first step is that he shares the story with his disturbed wife. The key image here is remarkable: Husband and wife sit back to back, yet the dialogue shows that they might come closer together.
As Mitchell enters the strip club where Cynthia used to work and which the gay thug Leo Franks (Robert Trebor) owns, Gary Chang fades in the martial drums. Mitchell’s crusade has begun. On the other hand Frankenheimer avoids to step into the action-trap of the time in celebrating a vigilante killing spree. Although Mitchell is clearly the fighter type Korea veteran Roy Scheider shows more wit and intelligence than pure hate and lust for destruction. His revenge will be much more sophisticated than expected.
Yet in this scene another of Cannon’s at the time typical exploitative moments actually occurs: Doreen – interrogated by Mitchell – continually undresses in this situation. Frankenheimer’s direction of this scene uses this sexual overtone to great effect, again stressing out the commercial degradation of the human body. And Doreen’s acquired cynicism. Mitchell takes a picture of the gangster and leaves with Doreen. She gives him the next hint, in form of a riddle. And obviously she takes Mitchell’s money. She still is part of the system and thus – following the logic of the film – is also guilty.
The same happens when he enters Alan Raimy’s adult cinema. The girl at the box office insist on him paying five bucks, although he only wants to see the owner. That is Frankenheimer’s idea of Los Angeles: a city of the fallen Lost Angels.
Alan also refuses to take the money, but this time Mitchell is in charge. He invites the gangster to his company office at night. There he ‘proves’ that he actually is not able to pay the price. Here we learn that Raimy has actually studied economics, but later he discovered ‘better ways to make money’ as he says. Raimy is still cool and chews his gum. But Mitchell seems even more controlled. From being the victim he steadily develops his whip-hand. ‘I want to deal only with you,’ he demands, and plants the seed of his revenge. Asked who gave Mitchell the name he blames it on Leo.
The bond of the thugs is now broke: They don’t trust each other any more. The first result is Bobby threatening Doreen, a scene that begins like a game between lovers, slowly turns into an aggressive torture scene as Bobby is attempting to kill Doreen with a white teddy bear. That again is sexualised by the camera perspective showing the woman’s struggling legs in lingerie. The tension additionally is pushed by the fact that we know what the gangsters are capable of.
As Barbara discovers Mitchell working on his car, she freaks out. On first sight it only underlines his nerves of steel in a moment of crisis – we will later learn what he really does. And as Bobby enters the house, he actually shows that he can fight. This is Frankenheimer’s rare reference to the typical Cannon-style of these years: Hammering synthie-beats and two man fighting for their lives. Again this scene ends in a dialogue, while Barbara takes Bobby’s picture. Mitchell tells Bobby of the money deal with Raimy. Thus the second act of revenge is sealed. And Barbara touches her husband lovingly again. A new kind of trust is established.
It is remarkable here that 1986 was the era of Ronald Reagan’s politics of the new Cold War. It was the era of trained hard bodies, aerobic and body building. And it was the era of what Yvonne Tasker calls the ‘spectacular bodies’: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian (1982), Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in Rambo – First Blood Part 2 (1984) and later Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988). Cannon Films followed this trend with action films featuring Jean-Claude van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and in some respect also Charles Bronson. Typical eighties thrillers showed violent heroes solving the problems with brute force. They reflected the martial politics of their time with a gesture of constant threat opposing the ‘liberal’ idea of negotiating and using intelligence instead of a weapon. Harry Mitchell acts the opposite way: He embodies John Frankenheimer’s ideological critique of the affirmative tendencies Hollywood provided at the time. Mitchell turns the systems against itself by recognising its weakness and pushing the right buttons. In this way 52 Pick-Up may be regarded one of Frankenheimer’s late political statements referring back to his earlier Films about individuals against the destructive system. He will later return to this concept in a very radical way with Kyle MacLachlan’s character in the HBO-TV-movies Against the Wall (1994) where the protagonist is clearly marked as a liberal. Harry Mitchell only appears to confirm the system on first glance by representing its executive force – the violent incidents will teach him to change very fast.
Later Bobby catches Raimy shooting a new porn video. He starts to destroy Raimy’s apartment, and finally points the gun between the pornographers legs. This is convincing. Frankenheimer stresses their new pact by changing from confrontational counter-shots to a low wide shot connecting both men.
As Mitchell visits the crying and desperate Leo, this man has already lost. He even proposes to go to the police. His whimpers seem to disgust Mitchell who leaves the place soon.
The kidnapping of Barbara by Raimy is pure thriller routine, done in the professional way by Frankenheimer who is clearly in his element. Raimy’s game showing Barbara the weapon – ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ – is shown from the victim’s point of view, a triumphant smile on his lips and the water reflections on his face. Things now develop fast: Barbara’s attempt to escaped is quietened by force. Later Bobby visits the resigning Leo and his homosexual friend. He plays the macho killer game, even making fun of the man. Frankenheimer is in his element again: Bobby seemingly has left, and Leo’s lover stands in front of the blue lit shop-window, talking to him. Then the phone rings and at this very moment the glass breaks and a bloody wound appears on the young man’s body. As he falls out of the focus, Bobby is seen in front of a neon-gas-station. Here Frankenheimer clearly aims at stylish and pessimistic neon-noir-aesthetics Abel Ferrara and Michael Mann will be so famous for a few years later. Leo’s time is out. His shooting at the desk is reminiscent of as closing scene in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), when Robert Prosky is shot in his own living room. But the final mask has yet to fall.
Barbara is not the easy prey as Raimy has to discover, she fights for her dignity. Raimy has to quieten her with drugs. Later he also kills Bobby Shy and Doreen, who also struggles to escape. The women here do not deliver themselves easily into the role of a victim. Frankenheimer uses this incident to play out the spectacle. It ends fast and bloody like before. And while Gary Chang’s beats hammer the two men finally meet on the Terminal Island railroad bridge outside L.A. They exchange the ‘material’ of their macho-game, woman for car and money. But the destructive play of ultra-materialism stills lacks its final twist. In a very over dramatized scene Raimy is finally killed by his own greed. He takes over Mitchell’s sports-car, turn on the stereo and discovers: „This is the first of the last ten seconds of your life.“ As a military march plays in high fidelity, Raimy’s attempts to break out fail and the car blows up in several takes. This might be a second reference to Cannon standards, the happy ending with some drops of blood, the bad guys punished and dead. The camera is slowly panning away into a glorious wide shot of the burning car and the united couple. Synthie beats close this cynical play of masks and material for good.
While 52 Pick-Up is typical for the often cynical or ironic noir-novels Elmore Leonard is so popular for – and clearly an inspiration for the screenplays of Quentin Tarantino – it also provides a lot of resources for the old maverick John Frankenheimer. At this point of his career his glory years were long past. Black Sunday (1976) still had some good reviews, but few critics could understand why he would film a special effects driven nature’s revenge flic like Prophecy (1980). The post-samurai-thriller The Challenge (1982) might have been ahead of its time and was also rejected.
When Cannon Group emerged out of Golan-Globus fused with Thorn EMI in the early eighties, these busy producers were eagerly searching for old professional directors to develop marketable genre films for them. Besides Michael Winner (of Death Wish-fame) John Frankenheimer seemed the right choice for Cannon and they produced three films in row with him. The first one was a rather old fashioned adaptation of a Robert Ludlum best selling novel. With The Holcroft Covenant (1985) Frankenheimer actually reached the end of acceptance for most of his early fans. This international conspiracy thriller only awoke shadows of his early paranoia thrillers made in the sixties and featured a very confused hero with Michael Caine. Originally James Caan was to play the naïve son of a former Nazi business man, whose money was meant to build the Forth Reich. The film never managed to clear up the twisted plot lines based on the long novel. However the second Cannon-adventure turned out surprisingly different for Frankenheimer. It was made on a similar condition: using at that time second rate stars from the sixties and seventies – Roy Scheider, Ann Margret – and some b-picture new comers – such as Vanity and John Glover, b-picture regulars such as composer Gary Chang and a fairly popular novel as the source, this film also confronts exploitation and trash film elements with the wit and ambition of the old auteur. What could have become a typical Cannon-outing in the hands of their action-regular J. Lee Thompson – who is even older than Frankenheimer – profs to be very tricky in style and direction. Frankenheimer managed to show how a true auteur in the sense of the cahiers du cinéma-theorists can use the Hollywood-mechanism to develop a very personal and original film by combining his favourite elements – the intelligent and flexible man in crisis, a totally corrupted system turned against itself – with the sensations of the day.
So 52 Pick-Up is a truly remarkable Cannon-achievement: It delivers all the goods and still has a European sense of style and artistry. That was probably what they had in mind, even when they hired younger directors such as Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train, Maria’s Lovers, Shy People). Anyway their concept failed and by the time of the third Frankenheimer-collaboration Powerplay (1990) Cannon Group was already in financial problems. All three cannon Group/John Frankenheimer-productions went down in the financial disaster and were later re-distributed by MGM who overtook many Cannon-productions and published them on the international home market.
Most of John Frankenheimer’s films happening around 52 Pick-Up deserve re-evaluation. And 52 Pick-Up and The Challenge might now be seen as typical but also prototypical and at the same time undeniably original eighties-thrillers. Both are playfully and noirishly directed, share a certain amount of viciousness, and especially 52 Pick-Up was directed against the values of Ronald Reagan’s America: with an intellectual hero, who uncovers the corruption of the purely materialistic Hollywood business, says farewell to the new economy status symbols in favour of his beloved wife and wins by using his mind instead of a gun.
And then again: Alan Raimy, who favours the materialistic game that society dictates, is a perverted prototype of the capitalistic boom of the mid-eighties gone mad. He can be seen as the first step leading towards Brad Easton Ellis’ wall-street-serial-killer Patrick Bateman, the ultimate American Psycho, the master of masks and material, for whom human life is just a another commercial toy.
Yvonne Tasker (1993): Spectacular Bodies. Gender, Genre, and the Action- Cinema. London.
 Named after Gualtiero and Jacopetti’s pseudo anthopological documentaries Mondo Cane 1 and 2 (1960), both mixing newly shor documentary material with made up sequences and manipulative montage and commentary.
 Mikita Brottman: Offensive Films, Nashville 2005. Here he stresses out that so far no evidence for actual snuff-movies from South America have been discovered by the FBI.