Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Life of P.I.

(Editor’s note: This review is submitted in association with Todd Mason’s Tuesday series of blog posts about “overlooked films and/or other A/V.” You’ll find more of this week’s picks here.)

The main title sequence from P.J.

If memory serves, the first time I watched the 1968 big-screen picture P.J.*--starring George Peppard as a low-rent private detective in New York City--was sometime during the late 1970s, on television. That means I probably didn’t see the full movie, for as I’ve since learned from this piece in Mystery*File, the TV version “cut out all the sex and violence, toned down the unsavory elements, and turned a crude movie into an insipid one.” If I found the results confusing, I don’t recall it all these years later. I was interested in P.J. principally because I had enjoyed Banacek, the 1972-1974 NBC Mystery Movie series in which Peppard played a significantly better-off insurance investigator. I simply wanted to see what else the actor had accomplished during his by then almost 30-year acting career.

P.J. was a Universal Pictures production, released in the United States in January 1968. Its director was John Guillermin, with whom Peppard also worked on House of Cards, a suspense film--based on a 1963 novel of that same name by Stanley Ellin (who also penned The Eighth Circle)--that would make its debut just six months later, in September 1968. The P.J. story was written by Philip H. Reisman Jr. and Edward J. Montagne (who’d previously worked together on the Ralph Bellamy gumshoe series Man Against Crime); Reisman did the screenplay. P.J.’s almost jaunty, eminently whistle-able main theme music was composed by Neal Hefti, who also created the memorable themes for Batman and The Odd Couple, as well as for other movies, such as Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Harlow (1965).

This 109-minute film finds Peppard’s peeper, P.J. (Peter Joseph) Detweiler--a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps who’d served as a military policeman during the Korean War--being hired to bodyguard the very lovely body, indeed, of Maureen Preble (played by Gayle Hunnicutt). She’s the less-than-gleeful mistress of cheapskate industrialist William Orbison (Raymond Burr), a man whose absence of scruples is rivaled only by his comprehensive lack of human compassion. Miss Preble claims to have received a succession of anonymous death threats. Although he’s not fully convinced of her veracity on that subject, Detweiler is up to his private ears in bills, and Orbison is prepared to shell out “expenses and $100 a day” to see her protected. Can Detweiler really turn down the job, especially after Maureen bats her long lashes and hints that she might be interested in him for more than his blue eyes and bargain-basement suits?

Of course, what Detweiler hoped would turn out to be a cushy (and cuddly) new assignment quickly becomes anything but simple. Or safe.

First, some unknown assailant tries to shoot Maureen in her well-appointed bedroom, but splits the mirror instead of her noggin. Then, after a night out at a pricey club where bikini’d young women shimmy in an overgrown martini glass (hey, this was the swingin’ ’60s!), the sedan in which our hero is driving Maureen home suddenly loses its hydraulic breaks--the result of sabotage--and Detweiler can only stop by scraping all the paint off the car onto the length of a concrete road barrier. These incidents finally convince Orbison that “Miss Preble is no longer safe in this city.” So he flies her--along with a gaggle of his more dependent (and, consequently, greedy) relatives--down to the fictitious St. Crispin, “a very small island in the British West Indies” that’s dependent on ORBCO, Orbison’s enterprise, for its economic development.

There’s something resplendently tacky and consciously old-fashioned about P.J. The picture debuted back when the long era of sleazy paperback detective novels was waning, but the conventions created by the perpetually underpaid authors of those works--from Frank Kane and Harold Q. Masur to Richard S. Prather, Wade Miller, and William Campbell Gault--remained familiar and reliable ways of moving a crime story forward and maintaining its tension. So P.J. comes off as something of a B-movie tribute to those classic P.I. yarns, complete with a callous magnate, a fetching femme whose curves should be marked with “Danger” posts, and enough suspects with motives for murder to keep viewers guessing until the closing reel.

Indeed, most of those suspects are showcased in the reception scene below, which supposedly takes place in and around a mansion on St. Crispin, but was more likely shot on a Universal back-lot. In attendance are Detweiler and Maureen Preble, of course, but also Orbison’s shrewish sister, Elinor Silene (Jane Van Duser), and her conniving son (George Furth); the industrialist’s determinedly ignored and living-in-denial ex-beauty queen of a spouse, Betty (Coleen Gray); Orbison’s seemingly bought-and-paid-for executive assistant, Jason Grenoble (Jason Evers); and Susan Saint James, making her big-screen debut at age 21, playing Orbison’s scantily attired and predatory niece, Linette. Also prominent in this clip are Wilfrid Hyde-White, seen as the not-so-dense-as-he-seems governor of St. Crispin, and Brock Peters as Chief Inspector Waterpark, the island’s top cop.

There was no great necessity for this Caribbean interlude. It exists to lend the picture an exotic element and give it another sensation of movement. What happens in this tropical locale could just as easily have taken place at a luxurious estate in the Hamptons. However, one important event does occur on the island: during a nighttime scurry through the jungle, Detweiler shoots Jason Grenoble. The latter is found to have been carrying a gun, and was supposedly threatening Miss Preble. But is that fact or artifice? When Waterpark releases Detweiler after a night in the pokey, with no charges pending (whitewash seems to cover more than fancy homes on St. Crispin), the detective discovers that Orbison and his poisonous clan have departed, leaving him to make his own way back to the States.

As the action returns to New York, the questions of whether Orbision deliberately contrived to have Detweiler eliminate Grenoble, and why, become paramount. There are still storyline diversions, including a scene in which the tight-lipped thug who’d been dogging P.J.’s heels meets a rather gruesome end in a subway tunnel, and another that has the sleuth getting his ass handed to him in a Greenwich Village gay bar. (Hollywood was nowhere near as sensitive to gay rights in the 1960s as it is today.) However, the Grenoble mystery provides Reisman’s screenplay with a solid thread it can follow all the way to its gunplay-filled denouement.

Shortly after this crime drama reached theaters in 1968, film critic Roger Ebert wrote this in the Chicago Sun-Times:
In “P.J.,” his new detective film, Peppard takes what is probably not the greatest movie ever conceived and turns it into something very interesting. He is assisted by good supporting performances, particularly from Raymond Burr. He plays the detective, a broken-down guy who is hired so he can be framed. His performance reminded me of Michael Caine’s in “The Ipcress File,” another case of a detective movie coming along (in the midst of a great surplus of detective movies) and lifting itself above the crowd. ...

I guess there are things wrong with the plot, including one of those awkward speeches at the end where the hero begins “Then you really ...” and explains who REALLY did what to whom. But as a whole, the movie works. It has some nice, cynical dialog, some good location scenes in Brooklyn, an understanding bartender, a couple of good fights, and Peppard, who can play a broken-down private eye, and does.
Indeed, the then 39-year-old Peppard fit well into the crushed chapeau and coupon-clipping lifestyle of a Gotham gumshoe. His P.J. Detweiler is so accustomed to being stepped on that he has grown to savor the scent of shoe polish. I can easily imagine how P.J. might have inspired cinematic sequels, or perhaps been turned into a regular small-screen drama. (Darren McGavin’s The Outsider, which also focused on an impecunious investigator, won a place on the U.S. TV schedule in the fall of 1968.) However, the actor himself stood in the way of any such plans. As he said of P.J. in an interview, “I thought it was a pretty good movie. But it’s not the first of a series. I wouldn’t get trapped into playing the same detective in a series of movies for all the gold in Hollywood.† But what this has, I think, is a good understanding of what a detective movie is. ... And it has a great musical score.”

(Left) Gayle Hunnicut, George Peppard, and friends

It wasn’t only Peppard who made P.J. a pretty terrific film, though. Burr, who’d had lots of practice playing bad guys on the silver screen before he starred in Perry Mason, demonstrates here that he still knew how to exude sadism and vileness. (One reviewer notes the similarities--in look and behavior--between Burr’s tyrannical capitalist and a certain former U.S. vice president who also liked to play with guns.) His William Orbison has no patience for people “beneath him” challenging his decisions. “Little man,” he snarls at Detweiler late in the film, “don’t be clever. You haven’t the capacity.”

Gayle Hunnicut’s Maureen Preble is gorgeous and seductive, but her undercurrent of wounded rebelliousness doesn’t lie too deeply below her rouge. (She would go on a year later to portray another woman with secrets in James Garner’s Marlowe, and then win the role of notorious Irene Adler in the first episode of Jeremy Brett’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Hard as it is to believe, Hunnicut will celebrate her 70th birthday tomorrow, February 6.) Also worthy of applause is Susan Saint James, who in 1968 was preparing to join the cast of The Name of the Game and was still three years away from co-starring in McMillan & Wife. You can see, even in her catty, limbo-ing Linette Orbison, the same brand of scene-stealing gregariousness that won her so many fans as Sally McMillan. Even Herb Edelman, who appears as Detweiler’s old army buddy and personal pawn shop, Charlie, adds to the quirky appeal of this underappreciated film.

Ebert was correct in calling P.J. “not the greatest movie ever conceived.” Yet in its blend of cynicism, eccentricity, and redemption can be found a picture worth seeing over and over again. I think I’m on my sixth or seventh viewing by now, having acquired a bootleg copy of the complete film from an online source a couple of years ago.

It’s too bad that P.J. isn’t available commercially. But last year, at least, some generous soul posted the whole movie on YouTube, in four parts. I’ve now embedded those here. You could do much worse than to spend part of your day taking in this flick.

* According to Ona Hill’s 1994 book, Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio, and Television Biography, P.J. was not this movie’s original moniker. “Raymond completed a film in 1968 for Universal Studios called New Faces in Hell,” Hill writes. “Afraid the title would offend some people, the studio changed it to Criss Cross, which did not fit the theme of the film, either, and had been the title of an old Burt Lancaster film in which Raymond had had a bit part. A relative newcomer, George Peppard, was playing the part of the main character, Peter John Detweiler, so the studio came up with the title P.J. George was given star status, with Raymond as the co-star.

† That George Peppard later accepted the series lead in Banacek makes one wonder how serious he was in making that statement--until you remember that he also bolted that NBC program two years later without much notice or evident remorse.


Unknown said...

Nice take on a film i thought was a pretty good pi flic. I have it on dvd from modcinema website. Now if i could get House of Cards.

RJR said...

I recently viewed the film on Youtube. It holds up for me. Didn't Edelman play a bartender on the Banyon TV pilot?


J. Kingston Pierce said...

Actually, in the Banyon pilot, Edelman played Harry Sprague, a "cheesy legman" who, when he wasn't drinking too much, did some light investigating for P.I. Miles Banyon. He also wound up being integral to the story's conclusion.


Anonymous said...

One of my tests of whether a movie is any good is to see how much of it I remember over time. I haven't rewatched this one in 20 years or more, but I still remember most of it, such as the scene where Waterpark holds up the investigative folder on the killing and shows it is empty. I think P.J. was a first-rate P.I. movie.

Todd Mason said...

Peppard was definitely on a roll in his roles in what could've been much less interesting films without him at this point...I was surprised by how engrossing I found ONE MORE TRAIN TO ROB, which looks like it might even have been shot as a television movie but got some cinematic distribution back when, perhaps in part due to turning out rather better than expected.

Welcome to the meme!

J F Norris said...

Coincidentally, I was watching some old episodes of 'WAY OUT (an obscure 60s anthology series hosted by Roald Dahl) on YouTube last week and saw an absolutely flipped out episode called "Croaker". The writer was Philip Reisman Jr. The story was right out of the horror pulps and the writing was absurdly funny. I needed to see more by this writer! I went to imdb.com to find out what else Reisman had written for TV and hopefully the movies. There I learned he wrote for numerous TV shows in a variety of genres, but that he wrote only one screenplay for a feature movie -- P.J. -- and that it is a cult movie with a lot of people longing for a commercial DVD release. Thanks for this detailed tempting review and for embedding the movie at your other blog. I know what I'll be doing this evening.

Dick Lochte said...

A long while back, I wound up on a panel at a very early (maybe even the first) Los Angeles Bouchercon. The discussion topic was our choice for the best private eye movie. One of my fellow panelists was a somewhat pompous, not to mention pretentious, writer who used up nearly all of our allotted time making the case for The Maltese Falcon. I agreed with his choice, but he was a jerk and I was young and annoyed, so I indulged in a dubious rebuttal, claiming that all Huston did was film the book. For a movie to be the best, it should stand on its own. He asked for an example and I gave him the first that came to mind. P.J. That got me a blink and a down-the-nose reply that P.J. was a TV movie. The Falcon was art. There was a good-sized audience and a lot of discussion. Afterwards, a friend asked me if I really thought P.J. was comparable with the Falcon. I told him I didn't think it was equal to, but comparable with? Sure.