P.J. (1968): An Entertaining, Twisty, Private Detective Thriller with a Secret Star
John Guillermin, who would go on to become a big-name director of blockbusters (1974’s The Towering Inferno, which struck box office gold, and 1976’ bomb of a remake of King Kong), helmed this 1968 release for Universal, starring George Peppard, with whom he would work on three movies, with The Blue Max (1966) and House of Cards (also 1968).
Peppard and Guillermin worked together so much because each was a high-priced property of Universal.
P.J. was such a bomb that Universal let its copyright lapse, such that it fell into the public domain, and was turned into the poor-quality DVD on which I watched it (blurry). (If you’re going to buy it, purchase the Blu-Ray edition.)
The picture itself is good, with a crackling good script and a tremendous cast.
The picture was a vehicle for Peppard, who isn’t bad. Excepting the NBC-Universal-produced, rotating private eye show of my childhood, Banacek (1972-1974), I am not a George Peppard fan. (If memory serves, Banacek was the anti-Columbo, arrogant, supercilious, and expensive.)
The greatest film Peppard was ever in was Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), where he played the struggling young writer and male prostitute (gigolo) who falls in love with the expensive prostitute (Audrey Hepburn) who lives downstairs in his apartment building. In Tiffany’s, Peppard was the weakest link.
I don’t think it was any accident that Peppard resembled Truman Capote, the homosexual author of Tiffany’s, even if Peppard was close to a foot taller, and Capote was a flamer. Peppard’s character, whom screenwriter George Axelrod had to create from scratch, is heterosexual but wimpy.
(Several years ago, the new york times ran a puff piece about a guy who’d written a book promoting Tiffany’s as the quintessential “romcom”—that’s what the vulgar pc call romantic comedies. Tiffany’s is a romance, but it’s not a comedy, and certainly not a romantic comedy. Truman Capote writing the quintessential romantic comedy? That sort of dreck is for times purchasers who never read Capote’s heartbreaking short stories, or saw the TV dramas he wrote starring Geraldine Page. Capote was the best thing that ever happened to Kleenex stock.)
I believe that Hollywood sought to make a star of Peppard, because he was blonde-haired, and in the new age of color pictures, they no longer needed to pair leading men who were “tall, dark, and handsome” with “bottle-blonde” leading ladies, in order to have visual contrast in black-and-white pictures.
The problem was, George Peppard had neither magnetism nor much acting talent.
Peppard had his greatest success as a paunchy, middle-aged, mercenary with a heart of gold, in the TV action series, The A-Team (1984-1989).
P.J. Detweiler is a seedy, down-on-his-luck private eye who typically works for wealthy men who want to divorce their wives by having P.J. seduce the ladies in question. The husbands then have goons photograph the couple in compromising positions, and beat up Detwiler, to hide his role in the whole set-up… and have a little fun at his expense.
Detweiler is just the sort of man that a malevolent mogul would use as a fall guy for his perfidious plot.
Enter billionaire William Orbison (Raymond Burr). Ray Burr was between TV series when he made this. For nine years (1957-1966), he had played the hero, lawyer Perry Mason, in the eponymous dramatic series, and he was about the best thing on TV. I watch Perry Mason re-runs sometimes on MeTV, and Burr is always a joy to watch, whether he’s addressing a court room full of characters, each of whom had motive, means, and opportunity to kill the victim, in the murder that DA Hamilton Burger is trying to pin on Perry’s client, or sitting quietly in his office and hearing out his client, or someone connected to him.
At least once a week, Mason would thunder, “That is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial!,” in response to something Burger had said.
During his movie acting career, Burr had almost always been obese, and thus become famous playing “heavies.” In order to get the job as heroic defense attorney Perry Mason, he had to go on a major diet, and the producers fit him with masterfully tailored suits. The earliest I know of him playing a lawyer was as the prosecutor in the George Stevens-Montgomery Clift masterpiece of crime and punishment, A Place in the Sun (1951).
I’ll bet that during Burr’s years of playing heavies, he dreamed of playing the hero, but that after nine years of that, he hungered to return to his evil roots. And he had a deal to go back to heroics as Chief Robert Ironside, in the show Ironside (1967-1975). Only this time, he could be as fat as he liked, and he got to perform from a wheelchair, as his character, a forcibly retired San Francisco police chief, had been shot in the back, and rendered a paraplegic.
Well, between Perry Mason and Ironside, Ray Burr really let himself go. He appears to weigh at least 350 pounds here. The character he plays is such a miser that he clips cigars he’s mostly smoked, and stores them in a separate humidor, in order to finish them later. Whenever he sends a staffer out to run an errand, he knows the exact mileage and gasoline involved.
William Orbison is such an outrageous character that a lesser thespian would have given an over-the-top performance, and turned him into a spoof of a type. But Burr plays him straight down the line—and thereby steals the picture.
Gayle Hunnicutt plays the romantic interest, as Orbison’s mistress, who has been targeted for murder attempts, and whom Detweiler is paid to bodyguard.
Hunnicutt is attractive, but appears to be a little on the chubby side, and wears oddly-cut fashions meant to hide this fact. She had talent, but her career didn’t go very far, due to her appearing in a series of bombs.
The cast is wonderful, much of it Universal talent, including Susan Saint James, who eventually married the boss (but only years after Universal had signed her to a contract), and is still married to him, 39 years later. She was the secret star of the first revolving series (starring, alternately, Gene Barry, Tony Franciosa, and Robert Stack), The Name of the Game (1968-1971), as ditzy secretary Peggy Maxwell, the only character who was on every week. She then carried Rock Hudson, playing the San Francisco police chief, as his ditzy wife, in McMillan & Wife (1971-1976), and then co-starred with Jane Curtin in the sitcom, Kate and Allie (1984-1989).
(Universal, which had long been one of the more minor of “major” studios, and which had once gone under, due to founder Carl Laemmle’s out-of-control nepotism, was sold during the 1930s, and was best known for horror flicks—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc. However, it was the first studio to dive into TV production, shortly after The War, which for many years made it the biggest studio in the business, and it eventually merged with NBC. Today, they are known as NBC-Universal.)
Part of P.J.’s story takes place on a West Indian island that still belongs to the British, but has pretty much been bought by Orbison. Whenever he appears on a visit, the islanders break out in hilarious songs praising his virtues, which they apparently spend all their time between his visits composing.
The local chief of police is played by Brock Peters (Carmen Jones, 1954; Porgy and Bess, 1959; and To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962), in a charmingly restrained performance, with a credible accent.
Wilfrid Hyde-White (The Third Man, 1949) is also droll as a British official who constantly involuntarily blurts out, “Damned Yankees!,” Asperger-like, whenever Orbison is around.
Herb Edelman plays P.J.’s best friend and bartender, and other old familiar faces like John Qualen (Muley in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, 1940) and Bert Freed (cops, cops, cops!) abound.
One weakness P.J. has is a generic, urban “jazzy” score by Neal Hefti—most of the action takes place in New York City—which is largely indistinguishable from his score for Madigan the same year. (Hefti had scored the warm soundtrack for the Neil Simon romantic comedy, Barefoot in the Park, the previous year, and Simon’s The Odd Couple, also in 1968. People in the business associated him with a “New York” sound, but he clearly took on too many jobs.)
One of P.J.’s great strengths, however, Philip H. Reisman’s sharp script, based on the story he co-wrote with Edward Montagne, has crisp dialogue and clever plot twists, which I won’t betray.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.