Fri 16 Apr 2010
P. J. Universal, 1968. George Peppard, Raymond Burr, Gayle Hunnicutt, Brock Peters, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Jason Evers, Coleen Gray, Susan Saint James, Severn Darden. Director: John Guillermin.
A year after Gunn (1967, and reviewed here ) at Universal they took tastelessness and raised it to a high art in a B-movie I dearly love called P. J., with George Peppard surprisingly believable as a not-too-bright PI up against Raymond Burr as a nasty gazillionaire who hires him to protect his mistress (Gayle Hunnicutt) who’s been getting anonymous threats — or has she?
The threats are understandable since Burr’s family (including Colleen Gray, Susan St James and some guy doing a bad Paul Lynde impression. Remember Paul Lynde?) don’t like the way Burr flaunts his girlfriend around. In fact, there isn’t much to like about him in this film; it’s one of his nastiest parts in a film career full of brutes, wife-killers and at least one gorilla suit, leading Peppard to quip, “That’s what I like about you; you’re all arm-pit,” which is about the level of wit here.
In fact, tackiness is the major charm of a film that loves to wallow in its own disrepute. P. J. starts off in a seedy motel room and moves on to a run-down gym where worn-out pugs fight for a job. When it moves to the haunts of the very rich, we get garishly decorated apartments, sterile offices, and a nightclub where bikini-clad dancers swish their butts around in a giant martini. Real class.
Later on, a studio jungle in a back-lot Caribbean island elevates the cheapness to something like epic scale, followed by a return to New York for some more engagingly crude violence, including a guy getting dragged to his death in a subway tunnel and a fight in a gay bar where our hero gets mauled.
But like I say, these things are the backbone of a movie that returns the Private Eye to Chandler’s Mean Streets, updated to the 1960s and slashed with Technicolor, but meaner than ever, with an added layer of corporate greed that seems relevant today but may be merely timeless.
Peppard stalks through it all like a once-promising leading man resigned to doing B-pictures, with added zing provided by John Guillermin’s punchy direction (he did Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure) and a script that tries for wit but settles for sarcasm.
A few other points before I leave this charmer: I reviewed this movie once before about thirty years ago, and at that time I reviewed it in the past tense because it didn’t exist anymore; when P. J. was released to television (which was mainly where you saw old movies back then) they cut out all the sex and violence, toned down the unsavory elements and turned a crude movie into an insipid one.
For decades, this was the only print available, but thanks to the internet and cheap DVD technology, the film has risen again, with all the ugly charm of a monster in an old movie.
Secondly, I should caution prospective viewers that this film takes a very retro view of gays. The movies openly recognized homosexuals in the late 1960s, but they were almost invariably portrayed unsympathetically and even demeaningly.
Like everything else in the movie, P. J. turns this up a notch, with Severn Darden in a performance he should be heartily ashamed of as a lisping, mincing, quivering sissy. Add to this an extended fight in a gay bar that looks like one of the lesser circles of Hell, and you can see how gays — or those who believe they should be treated like human beings — could get quite offended here.
Finally, a word about Raymond Burr’s performance. In my youth I watched films like this in search of a role model. Well, Raymond Burr in this movie looks so eerily like one of our recent vice-presidents that I wonder if someone else saw the film back in ’68 and fixated on him.
The character enjoys nastiness for its own sake, relishing the humiliation and even torture he can inflict on others.
He even goes to one of those clubs where birds with clipped wings are released on cue for “hunters” to blast away at. The similarities are positively unsettling, and I begin to wonder if the film was simply unavailable for so many years, or actually repressed by the previous administration.
Editorial Comment: I’ve scouted around some, and what I’ve discovered is that P. J. has apparently never been officially released on DVD, but it does exist in its original “unexpurgated” form and can be easily found on the collector-to-collector market.