Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Nigh Forgotten Private Eye Film P.J.

Apparently I'd never seen the film P.J. (Universal, 1968)I missed the NBC debut, but watched on late-night TV as a kid in the seventies. Word on the 'net--and the new Kino Lorber Blu-Ray commentary track from Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell--is that's only a sanitized version with omissions and alternate scenes. Far less gritty.

That must be true. I remember a couple of cool set pieces and George Peppard's turn as down-on-his-luck private investigator P.J. Detweiler, but in re-watching, I see there's more blood and a few steamy scenes including a credits sequence that didn't ring any bells.

On the down side in rewatching, location filming mixes with sound stage footage, diminishing the set pieces a bit.

For much of the film, P.J.'s guarding Maureen Preble (Gayle Hunnicutt), mistress of Raymond Burr's eccentric millionaire William Orbison.

When a car's cut break line sends it speeding out of control as cut break lines were wont to do in P.I. films and TV shows of the era, P.J. has to stop it by side swiping a rock wall with sparks flying. The stunt still impresses, but this is all while he's pressing Maureen behind him. It's 1968 and not every car has seatbelts.

Things get exciting, but George and Gayle are obviously in a simulator if you're watching in 2K. That didn't detract for me in rewatching the out-of-control car in Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot a while back. Here I found the seams a distraction. 

The other great set piece comes when Orbison carts family and mistress alike to the Cayman Islands. Some exteriors look authentic, but the jungle chase and gun battle fixed in my memory was clearly on a well-designed set as well.

That's all a matter of watching with 2021 eyes in HD and not on an old black and white portable TV, I suppose. 

That's not to say the film's isn't a fun watch. It's surprisingly whimsical early on with an upbeat score and loopy behavior by skinflint Orbison. When not flaunting his mistress, he saves cigar stubs and worries about wasted office paper. 

SEE ALSO: Biblioholic's Bookshelf - Tony Rome AKA Miami Miami Mayhem - Early Sixties Private Eye

The film turns gritty and arguably gets better as a thriller at the midpoint. I don't remember a few flourishes from the tough side of the run time. 

In what today seems a non-PC turn, P.J.'s lured to a gay bar by Preble's stereotypically gay assistant (Severn Darden). It must have been viewed as a edgy variation on the requisite private eye beating in 1968. It definitely reveals American film's attitude toward LGBT characters at the time. Blake Edwards updating of Craig Stevens' hero Gunn (1967) featured a trans character, and Tony Rome (1967) and They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) would include lesbian characters, the latter's not too charitably treated.

The bar here is peopled with more gay stereotypes plus Anthony James, behind the counter once again following 1967's In the Heat of the Night. Everyone in the bar has sharp nails, heavy jewelry or belts with big buckles. All the better to pummel P.J. with, and they do in bloody fashion.

The other steam's delivered in a tame but risqué turn with P.J. and Preble on a pile of cash. 

Still more grit's served up in a subway battle, happily on location with no seams showing. It's a yikes even today.

A final confrontation is also shot on location with blazing guns, interesting angles, twists turns and other surprises. It ends things well.

By the way, you should watch for Susan St. James and Arte Johnson in small roles. 

Really P.J. is like watching two films, and as mentioned it gets better as the murderous conspiracy swirls. Don't except too much of the mystery plot. 

Remember it's not Tony Rome. It's definitely not Harper, but it's worth a look for private eye aficionados. 

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