Elmore Leonard & Hollywood: a rocky relationship

pickupThe crime novelist Elmore Leonard died Tuesday at the age of 87 after one of the most successful — and respected — careers in modern fiction.

Leonard lived long enough to graduate from his pulp fiction roots into the big time of critical acclaim and mass popularity. Although he had a very prickly relationship with Hollywood, going back 50 years, Leonard attributed his late life popularity to the release of the 1995 film version of “Get Shorty.”

Leonard was famously unhappy with most of the movie versions of his books, and with good reason — how many authors suffer the indignity of two terrible adaptations of a single novel? Leonard did, with “The Big Bounce,” which bombed in 1969 with Ryan O’Neal in the lead and then again in 2004 with Owen Wilson starring.

One of the best Leonard adaptations was his own script for the 1986 film of “52 Pick-Up” but the John Frankenheimer-directed drama suffered the misfortune of being produced and distributed by the Cannon Group, a long-forgotten company that specialized in Chuck Norris action pictures and pop-culture-fad movies about things like break dancing.

pickup2The film is a tough and rather nasty look at the intersection of high life and low life in Los Angeles almost 30 years ago.

The late Roy Scheider gives one of the best performances of his career as an industrialist, married to a rising politician (Ann-Margret), who has been having an affair with a pretty young actress (Kelly Preston), new to L.A., who is falling into the porn/prostitution underworld.

A porn director/pimp (played with ferocious force by John Glover) decides to blackmail the businessman with a hidden camera video showing Scheider having sex with the actress.

When the man says “no” and finally confesses to his wife about the affair, the blackmailer ups the ante by killing the mistress and pinning the murder on the businessman.

Scheider manages to make us care about a morally dubious man without ever trying to sugar coat what the adulterer has done to his wife.

It is clear watching “52 Pick-Up” that Scheider didn’t care if we “liked” the man he played, but he takes us so far into the character’s dilemma that the empathy factor is strong (when the industrialist is shown a tape of his mistress’ murder, we can see that the man is both horrified by what happened to a girl he cared for and terrified that he has walked right into a trap that will probably destroy him).

“52 Pick-Up” was one of the very few good movies produced by Cannon and it opened and closed almost simultaneously. For many years, Frankenheimer was vocal in his pain over the mishandling of the film and the fact that his co-workers Scheider and Glover and Ann-Margret had some of their best screen work go unseen.

“52 Pick-Up” is a lost Elmore Leonard gem worth searching out.

Joe Meyers