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"


pattinase (abbott) said...

There's a naturalness to it that's missing from films today.

Wallace Stroby said...

Not to mention black actors who aren't Samuel Jackson, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, the only ones who appear to be on Hollywood's A-list these days.

Jmags said...

My favorite roles by black actors in the 70s: Carl Weathers as "Apollo Creed" and Tony Burton as "Duke" (Apollo's trainer).

Anonymous said...

Wow. You're the first person I've met this decade who knew about this film.

There are so many of these gems out there. The 70's - truly the golden era of filmmaking.

Wallace Stroby said...

Paul Guyot said...
Wow. You're the first person I've met this decade who knew about this film.

You kidding? I own the book!