FIFTY-TWO PICKUP (1974) by Elmore Leonard

52-Pick-Up_posterThis 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:


***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Elmore Leonard, Film Noir, John Frankenheimer, Noir on Tuesday, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to FIFTY-TWO PICKUP (1974) by Elmore Leonard

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Love this adaptation of Elmore’s crime novel. Your dissection of it pitch perfect, Sergio. So many wonderful performances in bringing to the screen Leonard’s distinct characters. So glad to read you’re a fan of this one, my friend.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Fantastic review, Sergio, as ever. That really is a corker of a film, and I couldn’t agree more about Scheider’s performance. Interesting how Leonard’s skill as a writer wasn’t really acknowledged as much until he made the switch to urban thrillers. I think that sort of thing has happened with other writers , too. I know Christie wasn’t as well known as a writer of romance as of crime fiction, but she did both.

    • Thanks Margot, very kind. I really like the book but think the film is superior. It is fascinating how much of Leomnard’s work, like Christie’s, continues to be adapted for the screen.

  3. Colin says:

    A very good movie (I haven’t read the book) and well written up here. I agree Scheider really pulls out all the stops in a heartfelt and credible performance and Ann-Margret does fine work too as the wronged wife. Glover is a top villain and Clarence Williams is scary as the nutjob of the trio, Robert Trebor is less effective though. The only gripe I have, and it’s a small one, is the synth score that pops up from time to time – I could live without that quite happily.
    The Ambassador isn’t as good a movie but it’s been ages since I saw it and wouldn’t mind checking it out again some time.

    • Thanks Colin – you’ll be unstunned to know that a reviw of The Ambassador is due shortly (I got the English-friendly DVD from Germany, which has excellent PQ). I agree, of the trio of villains, Trebor is in every sense the weak link. Gary Chang csored a lot of Frankenheimer’s films from this period but I think this was his first and does feel overdone on occasions – it certainly makes it feel very 80s 🙂

      • Colin says:

        I haven’t seen that much of Frankenheimer’s output around that time except The Holcroft Covenant & Year of the Gun, and I think they had scores by other composers. Chang’s music isn’t bad exactly, but it’s very generic ’80s stuff.
        Looking forward to being reminded about The Ambassador.

        • For Frankenheimer he also did the underrated Dead Bang, the fairly diabolical feature, The Island of Dr. Moreau and several really strong historically-based television projects: Against the Wall, The Burning Season, George Wallace, Path to War and the controversial Andersonville miniseries. 52 Pick-Up was pretty much his screen composing debut actually.

  4. Excellent review, Sergio. I think the film is too often overlooked since it didn’t get the big-budget affair so many of Leonard’s other books-to-films got. Meanwhile, both the book and the movie are top-notch offerings; great writing by Leonard, and great performances by Scheider, Ann-Margret, Glover, and Clarence Williams. Then again I am partial to Leonard’s Detroit novels 🙂

    • Thanks Chris – it would have been even better had the film been set in Detroit but that went to reduce the budget (though you do get that very good sequence in the desert, not found in the book, as compensation, mainly shot in one of Frankenheimer’s trademark one-takes).

  5. tracybham says:

    Elmore Leonard is an author I have been planning to read but never get to. And this book and movie sound perfect. I will definitely be on the lookout for this one.

    • Hope you liek it Tracy – this is the right place to start, though the wife’s role is much imporved int he film. Unknown Man No. 89, The Switch and La Brava may be even better 🙂

  6. Steve Powell says:

    I love this book and agree the movie is excellent. Not to quibble but I don’t think the movie quite matched the brilliance of the novel. The pace drags a tad in the middle, as mentioned the score is irritating but thankfully not overused, and the ending loses something of Leonard’s final gag to the reader. Still, I’ve watched the movie twice and was greatly impressed both times.

    • Thanks Steve – while I agree that the dynamite gag in the book is memorable, I though getting rid of the related subplot was a good move as it just ended up being too convenient. For me it is the the depiction of the wife in the book that really hurts it and in amending that in the film it becomes even more obvious, don;t you think?

  7. Steve Powell says:

    Yeah I thought it was a bold move to make the wife stronger and with a high-powered political career. Losing the would be suitor was a good idea. Leonard has a similar character in The Switch that seems to work better.

  8. Harper says:

    I confess that I’ve never read any Elmore Leonard crime novels, but I have read his westerns. So, which are the best Leonard crimes novels? If you were to choose three for me to read, which would you choose? Perhaps your many visitors will also offer Rx titles.

    • Now there is a big ask! Personally, I would probably recommend, at least to start with, along with Fifty-Two Pick-Up, maybe Unknown Man No. 89 and The Switch from the Detroit novels. Of the later Floridian variety, I would certainly include La Brava and Cat Chaser

  9. Patti Abbott says:

    Haven’t seen this since its original release but I loved it then. Maybe one of the best movies from EL’s work.

  10. Yvette says:

    I’ve only ever read Leonard’s western novels (and not many of those) but don’t ask me to name tell you about them. They are gone from my memory. I only know I read them once upon a time when I was going through a Zane Grey / Louis L’Amour phase. At any rate, I do like Ann Margret and Roy Scheider. (Has anyone but me ever seen him in a movie called The Death and Life of Sheila Levine? I think that was the title. If you know this movie or have heard of it, PLEASE let me know. I’m on the hunt to see it again somewhere, somehow.)

    I enjoyed your review and you’ve made me want to see 52 PICK-UP, Sergio. I met and worked with Ann Margret (on a fashion spread) many years ago. A very nice person, very natural and no movie-star airs whatsoever. She was a delight to work with.

    • You got to work with Ann-Margret on a fashion shoot? Yvette, that is so cool 🙂 I think the Scheider movie you mean is Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, from the Gail Parent novel, right? By the looks of it, it is pretty easy to find online in the US

      • Yvette says:

        So where have I been that I haven’t been able to find it? I loved Roy Scheider in this. Thanks for letting me know what’s what, Sergio. You always know everything. 🙂
        Yeah, I was cool once upon a time – working with Ann Margret was cool. I even got to go to a club opening where she came over to my table and met my hubby and chatted us up. 🙂

  11. I wish I didn’t have so many books and DVDs lined up to read/watch – this sounds like two films I really should see…

  12. Santosh Iyer says:

    I note that the film is available on you tube.–_r4

    • Yes, but please note that it’s there illegally. I usually try to avoid linking to items when they are clearly unlicensed. I have a bit more sympathy when a title is really hard to find commercially, but in this case it is very easy to find on DVD (and even on Blu-ray in the US). In the case of the latter, I would highly recommend Chuck Bowen’ intelligent analysis over at Slant. I like the film a good deal more than he does, but the critique provides a very interesting perspective on a film often too easily dismissed as another example of ‘Cannon fodder’ (in honour of the bargain basement origins of production company, Cannon Films).

  13. Bev Hankins says:

    I have to admit, Sergio, that I gave Elmore a try back in 2010–in part because I’d heard so much about him and (big surprise) because I needed him for a reading challenge–I was not enthused. I readThe Big Bounce and have been told that it isn’t one of his best, but I didn’t care for his style at all. You make this one sound good, but I don’t know that it tempts me enough to give him another whirl.

    • Fair enough Bev – his tone is wry and darkly comic and they often feel like urban westerns. The other films from his books I really like, such as Jackie Brown, Out of Sight and Get Shorty, are very faithful and indicative of his later style – lots of dialogue and double crosses usually surrounding attempts to get a bag full of money. If the tone and characters of those don’t do it for you, give up!

  14. steve says:

    Never seen the film but it sounds interesting. Enjoyed the novel. For my money Leonard was at his best during the mid 70’s to mid 80’s – SWAG, UNKNOWN MAN No 89, THE SWITCH, LA BRAVA etc were all great books. Thanks for the review Sergio – I need to watch this film.

    • Thanks Steve – I agree with you about Leonard too. The movie is really very good and does amend things enough (and with Leonard’s own involvement) to make it really worthwhile.

  15. Sergio, I have not seen any of the films based on Leonard’s novels. I sensed a lack of emotion in his characters though I really can’t say that based on the very few novels I have read. He appealed to me as a writer because of the emphasis he placed on dialogue in his narration.

    • Hi Prashant – well, there is a kind of stoical detachment to the characterisation, that is probably fair, but his bets work often includes passionate love stories too – all very much in the Western tradition. You should watch Jackie Brown if you can, it’s really a great romance apart form anythign else.

  16. Jeff Cordell says:

    Good review. Oh by the way are you familiar with a 1977 movie called “The Late Show”? Written and directed by Robert Benton (writer of 1967 Bonnie and Clyde). stars Art Carney and Lily Tomlin. Produced by Robert Altman. I would call it a Neo Noir Detective Dramedy. I didn’t care for it when I was younger, but in the last decade or so I’ve come to appreciate it. I don’t think you’ve reviewed it. Give it a try.

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