Robin’s Underrated Gems: 52 Pick-Up (1986)

It seems that that every time we do a Shouts From the Back Row podcast, I always wind up kicking myself for forgetting to mention something. This week, we recorded a podcast about our all-time favourite movie villains and it wasn’t too long afterward when I said to myself: “Damn, I should have mentioned Alan Raimy!”. Now, I’m sure most people reading this won’t be familiar at all with the name “Alan Raimy”, but, hey, that’s what these columns are here for. Alan Raimy is definitely one of my personal favourite underrated screen villains of all time, who sleazed up the screen in a long-forgotten 1986 thriller called 52 Pick-Up. The film was actually based on a novel from acclaimed crime writer Elmore Leonard. Adaptations of Leonard’s novels became extremely popular in the late nineties with the releases of Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, but those who say that Get Shorty was the first good film version of an Elmore Leonard novel are dead wrong. I think the main reason that 52 Pick-Up doesn’t get the respect it deserves is because it was produced by the infamous Cannon Group. I’ve talked about Cannon in my columns for The Delta Force and Runaway Train and how they were known primarily for making cheesy, mindless action films, but every once and while, they did manage to produce a work of quality.

After purchasing the film rights to Elmore Leonard’s novelization of 52 Pick-Up, Cannon decided, for whatever reason, to adapt it into a 1984 film called The Ambassador, which starred Robert Mitchum and Rock Hudson. The Ambassador was a political thriller that took place in Israel and other than borrowing elements from Leonard’s basic plotline involving adultery and blackmail, the film had absolutely nothing to do with the original novel. Two years later, Cannon decided to give it another try and do a straightforward adaptation of 52 Pick-Up, and this time, they got Elmore Leonard himself to co-write the screenplay. The film wound up being faithful to the novel and one of the reasons it turned out so well is probably because Leonard was still around to help retain the story’s colourful characters and sharp dialogue. The plot involves a successful, fairly wealthy industrialist named Harry “Mitch” Mitchell (Roy Scheider) who has been married for 23 years to his wife, Barbara (Ann-Margret). However, Mitch seems to have reached the point where he wants a little more excitement in his life, so he has secretly been carrying on an affair with a much younger nude model named Cini (Kelly Preston). Unfortunately, Mitch winds up becoming the victim of an elaborate blackmail scheme as three masked men show him videotaped evidence of his affair with Cini and threaten to release it if he does not pay them $105,000. The three men in question are Alan Raimy (John Glover), an incredibly sleazy amateur pornographer, and his two sidekicks: a scary black pimp named Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III) and a nervous, sweaty little weasel named Leo (Robert Trebor). Mitch refuses to go to the police because Barbara has decided to run for city councilwoman and he does not want the scandal to ruin his wife’s political aspirations. He decides to confess his affair to his wife and tells the extortionists to go fuck themselves. They retaliate by kidnapping Mitch and forcing him to watch a horrifying snuff film of Cini being shot several times with his own gun. If Mitch does not pay them $105,000 per year for the rest of his life, he will go to jail for Cini’s murder.

On the surface, this sounds like a fairly routine and standard storyline, but Elmore Leonard is not a standard writer. In other hands, 52 Pick-Up might have been nothing more than your average, run-of-the mill, straight-to-video B-movie, but the story here is populated with well-written, fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters and it’s a pleasure to watch them interacting with each other. After Mitch finds himself embroiled in such a horrible mess, one of the film’s delights is watching gradually dream up a solution to dig himself out of it. He even goes so far as to invite Alan Raimy to his factory in order to show him his ledgers and prove that the most money he can afford to pay is $52,000 (“Like a lot of people who make a lot of money, you don’t seem to have any”). Of course, Mitch’s plan relies on him constantly feeding misinformation to Alan, Bobby and Leo, so that the three extortionists will become suspicious and mistrustful of each other, causing their scheme to fall apart. Roy Scheider is terrific as Mitch and is such a naturally likeable actor that you still root for him and sympathize with his plight even though he did a not-so-nice thing by cheating on his wife. The relationship between Mitch and Barbara is very interesting and complex as Barbara is clearly hurt and betrayed by what her husband has done, but seems to develop a new-found love for him when she sees him dreaming up ingenious solutions to their problem. However, it’s the colourful villains that really elevate 52 Pick-Up into something special. John Glover is a long-time character actor who is probably best known for playing the role of Daniel Clamp in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and he is just dynamite in the role of Alan Raimy (which is also one of the all-time greatest names for a sleazy villain). The character strikes a fine line between being so hateful that you want to see him get his comeuppance, yet so entertaining to watch that you want to root for him. Glover delivers all his lines in such an arrogant, condescending tone that even if Alan were not a murder and a criminal, he would still be an incredibly hateful person. Mitch pretty much sums it up perfectly during the scene where he confronts Alan face-to-face for the first time and says: “There’s something about your face that makes me want to slap the shit out of it”. Even though John Glover pretty much steals the movie, the other two villains in the story are also very strong. Clarence Williams III exudes genuine menace in the role of Bobby Shy, a guy who seems calm and cool on the surface, but is capable of sadistic violence at any second. The terrifying scene where he snaps and tries to smother one of his prostitutes is a standout.

Robert Trebor (one of the few actors whose entire name is a palindrome!) also does an outstanding job at playing the weaselly Leo, especially during a scene late in the film where he confesses his immense guilt about what happened and nearly has a complete nervous breakdown. None of the characters in this story are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts and while watching 52 Pick-Up, you wind up genuinely surprised by how invested you are in this story. The film was directed by John Frankenheimer, who used to be one of the top directors in Hollywood, but (as I previously mentioned in my Black Sunday column) delivered a pretty spotty output during the last half of his career. However, 52 Pick-Up is definitely one of his best later efforts, even though the finished product may seem like a bit of an anomaly to some viewers. Like I mentioned earlier, even though the movie features top-notch acting, directing and writing, it still has a surprisingly sleazy and exploitative side, and its large amounts of violence, sex and nudity seemed to be enough to turn off critics like Gene Siskel. Indeed, the snuff film scene where Cini gets shot is still pretty shocking and harrowing to watch today, so 52 Pick-Up is probably not recommended for overly sensitive viewers. You almost get the sense that the story’s sleazier elements are what compelled the Cannon Group to pick it up in the first place, but thankfully, all the talent involved was strong enough to turn the movie into a genuinely good thriller. 52 Pick-Up is pretty much forgotten today and has been completely overshadowed by the more acclaimed Elmore Leonard adaptations, like Get Shorty and Jackie Brown. The film may not seem like much on the surface for some viewers, especially if they were to turn it on and hear the hilariously cheesy and dated eighties synthesizer score playing over the opening credits. However, 52 Pick-Up is still a highly underrated piece of work that deserves a second look and, at the very least, deserves credit for delivering one of cinema’s most delightfully reprehensible villains. Raymond Lemorne from The Vanishing may be my choice for the most underrated villain in film history, but I also think that Alan Raimy from 52 Pick-Up is right near top of the list.

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