Grade:  B
Crime drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The pandemic has prompted most major studios to delay theatrical releases and slow down the production of home theater titles. Since Covid has made shut-ins of us all, big studios have released fewer films new to Blu-ray and DVD and more titles that are rereleases in the relatively new ultra-HD 4K format. But not Kino Lorber. They continue to remaster lesser-known older films for Blu-ray that feel like pleasant surprises when you watch them.

P.J. is a good example of that. This all-but-forgotten 1968 private detective film—which has never before been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray in the U.S.—has one foot in the hard-boiled PI genre, and another foot in the groovy sixties that inspired Mike Meyers to poke fun of the decade in his Austin Powers spy spoofs. In fact, there’s a club scene where two female go-go dancers do their go-go thing in a gigantic martini glass, swirling and shimmying around like a couple of human olives, and that scene feels as if it could have been shot for an Austin Powers film. Oh behave!

The music seems straight out of Austin Powers too, so fans of that parody will enjoy seeing where the inspiration came from—not this film precisely, but films like it that were produced during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Yet P.J. is also strongly evocative of other neo-noir PI films from the period, like Harper, Klute, Tony Rome, Night Moves, and the Robert Mitchum version of Farewell, My Lovely.

George Peppard (TV’s The A-Team, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) plays a down-but-not-out New York PI who takes a bodyguard job because it’s preferable to getting his legs broken by loan sharks and mob bosses. The Korean War vet is hired to protect the mistress (Gayle Hunnicutt) of the rich and powerful (and shady) William Orbison, played against type by the rotund Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Ironsides). What P.J. doesn’t know is that the job isn’t just dangerous—somebody has already shot at her—it’s also a set-up. Who wants her dead? Who’s behind it all? Who’s using him as a pawn? And why does Orbison flaunt his affair in front of his wife, even forcing his wife to meet the “other woman”?

When P.J. was first released, The New York Times called it “fun,” while the Chicago Tribune labeled it “routine.” They’re both right. Fans of later location-filmed PI TV-series like Magnum, P.I and The Rockford Files will recognize a similar narrative structure and production values, which sets up a sense of déjà vu. Though mostly shot in New York City, a large portion of the film is set on a fictional island in the Atlantic/Caribbean (really, it was filmed in the Pacific, on one of the California Channel Islands), and fans of the early James Bond films will see similarities between the way that the local police officer, uniformed in the vestiges of British colonialism, politely keeps an eye on P.J. throughout his time on the island.  But Peppard makes a great PI/bodyguard.

There are also surprises and some sharply written scenes in this solid film, and fans of the genre will enjoy seeing Susan Saint James—who would go on to play Sally McMillan opposite Rock Hudson in the popular McMillan & Wife police investigative series—in her very first big-screen appearance.  A few popular character actors also turn up, among them Herb Edelman (The Golden Girls, Knots Landing, Murder She Wrote), Wilfrid Hyde-White (My Fair Lady, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), and Arte Johnson (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The President’s Analyst, Love at First Bite).

Director John Guillermin is perhaps best known for The Towering Inferno Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, so he’s no stranger to disaster and suspense. His direction of P.J. is sure-handed, moving the story constantly forward so that there are no unwelcome slowdowns—only a welcome diversion for fans of the PI genre and families looking for new things to watch.

Entire family:  No (age 11 and older?)
Run time:  109 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Bonus features:  C+ (audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell)
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some violence and adult situations)

Language:  5/10—An average amount of cursing, mostly minor swearwords

Sex:  4/10—Apart from a comparatively tame bedroom scene it’s mostly flirtations and sexual innuendo

Violence: 5/10—One barfight scene, several people shot throughout the film, and a third-act shoot-out, all of it suspenseful but graphically tame by current standards

Adult situations: 4/10—Drinking and smoking, mostly; the hero is, after all, a hardened private investigator

Takeaway: The blend of hard-boiled PI and Austin Powers vibes makes this film still fun to watch more than 50 years later