By Melissa Houghton

In Christian teachings blackmail is not one of the seven deadly sins. Yet in film, the protagonist’s actions or thoughts stemming from non-virtuous behaviours such as pride, greed, lust or envy may serve as the underlying drivers of her motivation to commit other immoralities. In other words, the protagonist’s bad behaviour is usually the reason he finds himself being blackmailed. Often the vice is not actually overcome and leads to a moral turning point in the character’s arc, thence reacting out of self-preservation. Hero becomes antihero during fight or flight at the hands of the blackmailer.

What’s at stake? Reputational damage, financial ruin, fear of being caught cheating, lying or for committing adultery: disclosure of such transgressions could drive the hero to murder.

Some other time, we’ll revisit David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), a dark exploration of the seven deadly sins used as inspiration by a high-IQ serial killer to commit grisly acts. The serial killer stages six crimes, including sins gluttony and sloth, which leads to wrath in a devastating conclusion.

Wishing you all the blessings of spring.

The Player (1992)

Directed by Robert Altman (1925-2006), The Player is a dark comedy starring Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill and is the story of a Hollywood film executive who murders an aspiring screenwriter he believes is sending him death threats. It’s also a satirical look at Tinseltown, and the fickle, competitive, back-stabbing, gossipy behind the scenes world of the movie industry. Fictionalized, of course. The Player has over 60 celebrities who make cameo appearances in the film, has dozens of movie references, and holds the record in filmmaking with a nearly eight-minute continuous long shot opening scene.

Once considered a “comer”, Mill is receiving death threats via postcards and fax to his office. He’s turned down so many writers he’s not sure which one he’s ticked off to this extreme. Mill wants to find the person to stop the threats for several reasons. He’s paranoid his position at the studio is at risk, plus he needs a hit despite green-lighting a dozen movies a year. Mill is hearing rumours he could be replaced by the next big up and comer, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). Fearing he’ll lose his job, Mill decides to find the writer and offer him a scriptwriting deal to stop this from interfering with his chances at rising to the top rank as studio head.

Mill decides the blackmailer is screenwriter David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio). He drives to Kahane’s home in Pasadena and on arrival sees a woman who is inside painting a large canvas. He remains outside looking at her and staying in shadow; speaking to her from a large cell phone, he asks to talk to David. Mill engages in a flirtatious conversation with June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi).  June tells Mill where to find David. He drives to the revue theatre where David is watching The Bicycle Thief (1948), After the screening, Mill catches up to Kahane and invites him out for dinner to propose a deal, but nothing goes as planned. Kahane rejects Mill’s offered to give him a shot at a movie deal and makes threats to Mill’s job security. They fight in the parking lot and Mill accidentally murders Kahane and tries to make it look like a botched robbery.

To say more will spoil the rest of the movie. I hope you watch and the enjoy it as much as I do.

The Player was shot at time when men wore baggy pants, jackets had big shoulder pads, and studio executives thought plots must have happy endings.

More on Robert Altman. Altman was recognized for his pioneering filmmaking style described as Altmanesque; typically characterized as naturalistic, subversive, social critique, observational, and for introducing overlapping dialog. He felt that movies are like sandcastles, you get a bunch of mates together you build this sandcastle, the tide comes in and all you have left is the memory of it. Altman was collaborative and many of his films featured large ensemble casts. He wanted the actors to feel free to create and become like family.

Cast, cameos and name dropping in The Player: Richard E. Grant, Dean Stockwell, Whoopi Goldberg, Lyle Lovett, Dina Merrill, Jeremy Piven, Gina Gershon, Cynthia Stevenson, Brion James, Sidney Lumet, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Lily Tomlin, Marlee Maitlin, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Cher, Buck Henry, Leeza Gibbons, James Coburn, Sally Kirkland, Harry Belafonte, Shari Belafonte, Nick Nolte, Karen Black, Jack Lemmon, Martin Mull, Susan Sarandon, Peter Falk, Julia Roberts, Ray Walston, Robert Carradine, Louise Fletcher, Gary Busey, Steve Allen, Rene Auberjonis, Burt Reynolds, Kathy Ireland, Angelica Huston, John Cusack, Jeff Goldblum, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barry Levinson, Tom Wolfe, Frank Capra, Orson Welles, Kevin Costner, Michael Murphy, and more.

52 Pick-Up (1985)

Directed by John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), 52 Pick-Up stars Roy Scheider’s (1932-2008). Harry Mitchell “Mitch” (Scheider), is a successful Lockheed executive at Ranco Steel. Mitch works overtime by cheating on his wife with a prostitute named Cini (Kelly Preston). He’s getting serious about Cini, so sets up a secret apartment for their rendezvous. Neither of them knows the apartment has hidden cameras or they are being stalked by a trio of crazy blackmailers: Cini’s handlers/pimps.

Cini wants to go straight, stop hooking, take classes, and dreams of being with Mitch for the long run. Not so fast, her handlers devise a plan to blackmail and extort Mitch to buy a tape that exposes his cheating on his wife with Cini.

Meanwhile his wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) announces she’s running for councilwoman which creates a dilemma for Mitch. He’s so wracked with guilt over his infidelity he comes clean to Barbara about the affair. He’s upfront that he’s being blackmailed. He says it’s the first time he’s been unfaithful, but he says it’s different – he was tired of their relationship after 23 years. It’s not that simple. He looks for reasons why it happened, but Barbara walks out on him. Mitch’s only concern is to preserve appearances for Barbara who stuck by him while he built a successful business.

Mitch is summoned to a ball game to deliver the first instalment payment, only he doesn’t pay – he puts a fake stack of paper into the envelope. The blackmailers are pissed off and come up with another way to get at him. One of them, Alan Raimy (John Glover), breaks into the Mitchell home to intimidate Barbara. Mitch is abducted, blindfolded and roughed up by assailants. He’s forced to watch a video when he sees it’s Cini begging for her life until she’s killed on camera. The blackmailers are clear they will frame him for the murder unless he pays the extortion money. Raimy uses items stolen from Mitch’s home to implicate him – Mitch’s monogramed jacket and handgun.

Mitch is released and thinks he can fix this on his own, but his arrogance gets in the way of fully admitting he’s not in control. He turns detective to find Cini’s killers by showing up at the strip club to find Cini’s best friend Doreen (Vanity); he knows she can help him track down the masked blackmailers turned cold-blooded killers.

With Doreen’s help, Mitch tracks down each blackmailer and turns them against each other. He fails to understand how truly dangerous they are. Raimy kidnaps Barbara and shoots her up with heroine and rapes her, as a final warning to Mitch to pay the extortion money.

There’s one fundamental problem with the plot; it’s hard to fathom that Mitch thinks he can handle this without going to the police, but we’re led to believe it’s because he doesn’t want to hurt Barbara’s political ambitions. Mitch still seems too cool and removed but he does get the final word with Raimy.

52 Pick-Up features a solid cast and neo-noir style – this is before cell phones and streaming, there were payphones, videotapes, and cigarettes cost less than a dollar a pack. Elmore Leonard (1925-2013), co-wrote the screenplay based on his novel. The locations are seedy, gritty, dark, smoky, and moral bankruptcy is in great supply. Veteran character actors all shine as Mitch’s blackmailers: Clarence Williams III plays cray-cray Bobby Shy; John Glover is porn theatre owner Alan Raimy; and, Robert Trebor is strip club owner Leo Franks.

Hoping you watch the movie to understand the reference to the title.

*** *** ***

John Frankenheimer directed 30 feature films among his credits were Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), French Connection II (1975), Black Sunday (1977), and Ronin (1998). Frankenheimer also wrote for television.

Altman and Frankenheimer were both non-traditional film auteurs. They wanted as much freedom away from big studios as possible resulting in more control of their films. Altman was considered the first independent filmmaker and founded Lion’s Gate Films to have independent production freedom. Altman wanted to give the actors a chance to have freer reign and for himself to write, produce and direct stories that were not standard cookie-cutter Hollywood fare or formulaic.

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