Sunday, January 25, 2009

Big Apple Time Capsule Pt. 2: ACROSS 110th STREET

The second in an occasional series of posts about New York City as seen through the prism of 1970s shot-on-location crime dramas ...

"You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure/Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester." - Bobby Womack

Though it's sometimes lumped into the blaxploitation genre, 1972's ACROSS 110th STREET is actually a straightforward New York crime drama, albeit one featuring major black characters and dealing head on with racial issues. It's also a cinematic record of Harlem in the early '70s (110th Street being the informal boundary back then) - bleak and burned out and the perfect setting for a grim, existential crime story.

When three black holdup men rob a mob bank in Harlem of $300,000 - and kill a bunch of people in the process - both the cops and the wiseguys are soon in pursuit. The cops are represented by grizzled oldtimer Sgt. Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) and the principled Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto). Mattelli wants to break heads, Pope wants to calm the situation before Harlem goes up in flames. The mob dispatches Nick D'Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), an ambitious low-level crook, to recover the money and make an object lesson of those who took it.

Based on Wally Ferris' now long-out-of-print 1970 novel, titled simply ACROSS 110th, the film was directed by Barry Shear, a TV veteran whose previous film was WILD IN THE STREETS, co-starring a young Richard Pryor. It was Ferris' only published novel. He spent his career as a television cameraman, working for the DuMont Network in the 1950s and then for WNEW/Metromedia in New York, up until the FOX takeover in 1986.

Under the opening credits, set to Bobby Womack's now-famous title song (reprised in Quentin Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN 25 years later), we follow a mobster's black Cadillac on its trek uptown, with lots of footage of Harlem street scenes on Lenox Avenue, 125th Street and environs along the way (the Apollo Theatre marquee advertises an appearance by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Jr. Walker and the All-Stars). The action then picks up in a decrepit brownstone off St. Nicholas Place, where the robbery and shoot-out occur (one of the gangsters is played by a pre-CHINATOWN, pre-ROCKY Burt Young).

Quinn co-produced the film and does a good job as Mattelli, though he's not too convincing in some of the action scenes and sometimes a little over-the-top in the dramatic ones. But Kotto, in one of his earliest roles, is terrific. Pope grudgingly admires Mattelli while at the same time being repulsed by his racist and violent ways. He could easily have morphed into Lt. Al Giardello, the character Kotto played on TV's HOMICIDE 20 years later. Gravel-voiced character actor Richard Ward portrays a black gangster named Doc Johnson, another homage of sorts to real-life Harlem ganglord Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. Moses Gunn had played a similar role in SHAFT the year before, as Harlem kingpin "Bumpy Jonas" (in Ernest Tidyman's original novel, the character is named "Knocks Persons").

Though it never lapses into the fantasy world of blaxploitation, ACROSS 110th STREET is full of '70s stylings, from the pimped-out clothes and hats to red-lit nightclubs with velour walls and tiger-print booths. And the getaway driver is played by "Huggy Bear" himself, Antonio Fargas. The entire movie appears to be shot in found locations, from paint-peeling Harlem apartments to a lived-in looking local precinct house and the empty-windowed tenement in which the finale plays out.

ACROSS 110th STREET isn't a great film. Some awkward performances and choppy editing keep it from that, as well as a little too much gratuitous violence, nudity, zooms and freeze frames. But it's still way above average, especially in how it portrays the doomed hold-up men and their leader, Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin, in a stand-out performance), who realizes he's had his one shot at the big time - and blown it. It's Harlem itself that's destined to take him down, as surely as any mobster's bullet.

NEXT TIME: "Shaft"

Friday, January 23, 2009


And when he wasn't fencing, he knew how to relax, with a bottle of Cleveland's finest.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Big Apple Time Capsule Pt. 1: THE SEVEN-UPS

Not long ago, Reed Farrel Coleman and I were discussing how New York City as we knew it growing up (he in Brooklyn, me in N.J.) for the most part no longer exists. Crime and poverty-ridden, with a stratospheric murder rate and a perpetual fiscal crisis, New York in the 1970s - pre-Disney, pre-Giuilani, pre-homeless shelters - was a very different place.
Where that New York still survives, of course, is in the movies made during that period. In the late '60s and throughout the '70s, N.Y.-set films tended to get out of the studios and into the streets, often making a character of the city itself. This was especially true of shot-on-location crime dramas (though that path was blazed by Mark Hellinger and Jules Dassin's NAKED CITY back in 1948). Unlike valentines such as Woody Allen's MANHATTAN, these films usually featured unadorned, often grim (at times overly grim) visions of the city. In the years since, they've become evocative time capsules of the way things were.

The film that spurred this discussion was 1973's THE SEVEN-UPS, a movie that brought back vivid memories for both of us. A follow-up of sorts to 1971's THE FRENCH CONNECTION (both featured Roy Scheider as a hard-edged undercover cop), THE SEVEN-UPS was a gritty urban crime drama played out in the wintry streets of New York circa 1972 ("That's the New York I remember," Coleman said). In addition to Jersey guy Scheider's broken-nosed charisma and unaffected Everyman persona, the film featured lyrically stark camerawork by Urs Furrer and location shooting that ranged from the Bronx to lower Manhattan (he showed off the city to similar effect in SHAFT and SHAFT'S BIG SCORE!). And, like any '70s movie worth its salt, it features an appearance by Joe Spinell.

But what THE SEVEN-UPS is most remembered for, of course, is its chase scene, one of the best ever, as Scheider's character, in a Pontiac Ventura hatchback, pursues a pair of cop killers in a Bonneville (one of the killers is played by famed stunt driver Bill Hickman, who coordinated the action, as he had previously for BULLITT and THE FRENCH CONNECTION).
You see a lot of the city during the chase, from downtown to Washington Heights, but don't try to follow the geography. The cars cross the George Washington Bridge into Jersey, chase each other up the Palisades Parkway, then magically reappear back across the river on the Saw Mill River Parkway and eventually onto the Taconic for a bruising finish. Does the geography matter? Probably not. Enjoy.

NEXT TIME: "Across 110th Street"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Donald E. Westlake, 1933-2008

I've been remiss. Various end-of-2008, beginning-of-2009 things kept me away from blogging for the last couple weeks, not to mention Dec. 31's long goodbye at The Star-Ledger.

I did miss out on the chance to post about Donald E. Westlake, who died New Year's Eve and whom readers of this blog know as a writer I admired greatly, particularly in his incarnation as "Richard Stark," creator of the single-named - and single-minded - professional thief known as Parker. I've written a lot about Westlake/Stark in the past, and last year chose his 1967 novel THE RARE COIN SCORE as my pick for one of Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Fridays. I also used a passage from his BUTCHER'S MOON as a Random Readings selection, and had some related thoughts about PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP, the much-improved director's cut of the Mel Gibson film adapted from the first Stark novel, 1962's THE HUNTER.

There have been plenty of Westlake tributes since his death, almost all of them mentioning what a gracious and charming guy he was, in addition to being a phenomenally talented and prolific (more than 100 books) writer. I certainly found that be true when I interviewed him by phone in 1986 for The Asbury Park Press, on the release of his novel GOOD BEHAVIOR, the sixth in his comic series about bumbling crook John Dortmunder. For me, the interview was especially memorable in that, after spending an entertaining hour and a half on the phone with Westlake, I discovered that, just the day before, the paper had upgraded to a computerized phone system that blocked standard recording methods. What I actually had on tape was 90 minutes of electronic buzz. In a panic, I called him back the next day - he'd given me his home number - and he very generously submitted to another session, to fill in the gaps of what I couldn't remember.

GOOD BEHAVIOR began with the cryptic dedication "In Memoriam: P., 1961-73." In the interview, Westlake told me the "P" stood for Parker, and that since the novel used an idea he'd once planned for a Stark book, he was acknowledging there weren't going to be any more. "The character just kind of died for me," he told me.

Of course, Parker did return, in 1997's COMEBACK, and kept coming back, most recently in last year's DIRTY MONEY. He was a marginally kinder, gentler Parker by then, but still at heart the same relentless, remorseless professional. Of those later books, I think 2002's BREAKOUT and 2006's ASK THE PARROT both stand out as among the best in the series.

I met Westlake in person only once, at an ABA convention in Las Vegas in 1990 with James Ellroy, and I certainly can't claim to have known him. But his work - the majority of which I consumed in my most impressionable years - will be with me forever. For a brief period in the late '90s, he and I shared the same agent, the legendary Knox Burger, who, while an editor at Fawcett Gold Medal in the 1960s, had worked on the Parker books. While reading a draft of my first novel, THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, Burger called me out of the blue to criticize my tendency to write overly terse, in a manner he found inappropriate for the story. "You're trying to write like Richard Stark," he told me. "Don't!"

But who could, even if they wanted to? Westlake and Stark were one of a kind. We'll never see their like again.