This was the novel that put Elmore Leonard on the map as a crime writer – and was filmed twice in very quick succession, which is some kind of compliment! Having appeared as The Ambassador in 1984, it was re-made (much more faithfully) two years later as 52 Pick-up. Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret star as the long-married couple whose lives start to unravel following his infidelity, while John Glover and Clarence Williams III rock as the neophyte blackmailers who might be just what the husband and wife need to keep them together …
I submit this film/book review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s fab Sweet Freedom blog.
Harry: “I see it as something that could destroy our lives, affect our kids, ruin, wipe out everything. I’ve worked for, built up. Listen, I feel this more than I can explain it to you. I mean I want to do what’s right, I want to see them caught. But I’m also realistic, practical about it.”
First published in 1974, in many ways this was Elmore Leonard’s breakthrough novel. Hitherto a writer of westerns – many of which had been successful and filmed, such as The Tall T (1956), 3.10 to Yuma (1957) and Hombre (1967) – in the 1970s he switched to contemporary urban thrillers. Harry Mitchell runs a medium-sized factory in Detroit. A cool, calm and collected customer, he is none the less going through some kind of mid-life crisis because he has started cheating on his wife Barbara, after 22 years as a faithful husband and father. After three months of this he is starting to have qualms and heads over to his young girlfriend’s apartment where he is held at gunpoint – it appears that he has been caught in a ‘honey trap’ and is now being blackmailed by a trio of unscrupulous crooks who have decided to branch out from their day jobs in the porn industry and have been filming his affair. When Harry refuses to pay and instead confesses all to his wife, the crooks retaliate by shooting his girlfriend with his gun (and film this too) and threaten to frame him for her murder. Will Barbara forgive Harry – and how will they get out of this deadly jam?
Barbara: “Do you have any idea how this hurts?”
The decidedly seedy milieu (the villains all come from the porn industry) was bound superficially to mitigate against real popular success but Leonard lightens the load by giving this book some great black humour while Harry makes for a plausibly stoic, stubborn and very tough lead character. It’s great to see him turn the tables on his assailants and also try to make it up to his wife, who he clearly still loves. It is very instructive to compare the book and the 1986 film version as I think the latter does in fact improve on it in one major area.
The film relocates the action to LA (predictable as it was a medium budget affair made for Cannon Films) but is otherwise extremely faithful to the book (Leonard was brought in by director John Frankenheimer to re-write the script). Indeed this was, by common consent, the first of his crime works to be successfully translated to the screen. The film cuts out a couple of convenient subplots relating to a family friend who lusts after Barbara and an over-zealous union leader making trouble for Harry at work. More importantly though it does something very smart by correcting the major deficiency of the novel by substantially expanding the role of the wife, played in the film by Ann-Margret. She is now given a burgeoning political career, which Harry (a terrific performance by Roy Scheider) also wants to protect, so upping the ante for both of them. The scenes between the two leads really ground the film and give it great heart. On the other hand the villains give this thriller its dynamism, with John Glover wonderfully watchable as the horrible Alan, who dabbles in porn, murder, substance abuse and book-keeping too. Clarence Williams III is utterly credible as the psycho with an itchy finger and although there is an essential grubbiness about the their side of the story, it contrasts very successfully with the anodyne middle class whiter than white world inhabited by the heroes. A smart thriller for adults, impeccably put together, very well acted and with humour and smarts to spare.
DVD Availability: This has been released in a perfectly respectable DVD from MGM all round the world but with no extras. It is also available on Blu-ray in the US in an extras-free edition in what appears to be an OK transfer from older elements.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus, Henry T. Weinstein
Screenplay: Elmore Leonard, John Steppling
Cinematography: Jost Vacano
Art Direction: Philip Harrison
Music: Gary Chang
Cast: Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, John Glover, Vanity, Clarence Williams III, Kelly Preston, Doug McClure
I enter this review as part of Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘amateur detective’ category: