52 Pick-Up

dir. John Frankenheimer

Although you probably don’t know his name, if anybody mentions “the L.A. slime ball from Scrooged” or “Billy’s weirdo boss from Gremlins 2,” an image of John Glover’s face slowly begins to soak into your mind. Someone even less cool than me says he’s best known these days for portraying Lex Luthor’s dad on “Smallville,” but if I had it my way he would be remembered always for his genius performance in 52 Pick-Up.

The film itself is a routine affair, albeit with a few unique elements to hold your interest throughout its tired plot. Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) is blackmailed by three masked thugs into giving them $105,000 in exchange for a tape featuring him with his mistress. His wife (Swedish wildcat Ann-Margret) has a promising political career that would be ruined if he went to the police, so he instead consults his lawyer. Convinced that if he paid the blackmailers they would still harass him, Harry confesses his affair to his wife and refuses to pay. When the blackmailers then frame him for murdering his mistress, Harry devises a plan that will turn the blackmailers against each other.

What follows is the type of muscular, fast-paced thriller that director Frankenheimer himself perfected in the 60s and 70s. It’s fairly straightforward, if not a bit more lurid than one would expect, with multiple scenes involving Harry going to sleazy strip clubs and adult theaters in search of his targets. The salaciousness Harry encounters around every corner and his muted reaction to it do a good job of evoking the shame and regret he feels. The violence is also quite sensational throughout, with the mistress’s prolonged murder scene in particular being quite effective.

The script’s insistence on devoting as much time to the criminals as to the victims pays off while making the most of a boring plot. Witnessing the blackmailers lose grip on both the situation and their minds as Harry closes in on them is a lot of fun, but spending more time with the criminals also means that we get to see more Glover, who plays the group’s sociopath leader. The strangely cheerful narrations he delivers while Harry watches the blackmail tapes are priceless, and he manages to imbue his character with the same sense of twisted joviality throughout the rest of the movie.

He somehow not only out-acts the rest of the actors (including the ever-reliable Scheider), but at some point near the beginning of the third act, well after he has become the movie’s singular driving force, he manages to out-movie the entire movie, effectively becoming the number one reason to watch it.

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