Friday, May 18, 2012

Overlooked Gems #34: Across 110th Street

Grade: 90 (A-)

When people think of Blaxploitation, there’s always a few titles that will inevitably pop up: Shaft, Superfly, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and the highly influential (but in reality quite terrible) Sweet Sweetback’s Baaaaadaaaassss Song. Less heralded is the 1972 crime caper Across 110th Street. Directed by Barry Shear, whose career otherwise consists mostly of television work, the film is better known for the terrific Bobby Womack title-song (also used in Quentin Tarantino’s masterful Blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown, another Overlooked Gem contender) than as its own film. But it’s a zesty piece of filmmaking all the same, and one of the better films of its genre.

Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin) and two of his friends steal $300,000 from the mob and kill everyone in the meeting for good measure. Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), a lieutenant in the Mafia, is sent to find and exact revenge on the men. At the same time, African-American police Lieutenant William Pope (Yaphet Kotto of Alien and Midnight Run) of Harlem is assigned to the case, but he was to work with NYPD Captain Frank Mattelli (Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn of Viva Zapata and Lawrence of Arabia), a crooked racist police officer known for police brutality in Harlem.

The violence in Across 110th Street isn’t exhilarating, as it is in some Blaxploitation films- it’s punishing. When the mob finds the getaway driver in a Harlem brothel, they beat him within an inch of his life in the most brutal way possible. When they find Harris’ other friend, they interrogate him by hanging him over the edge of a building. The blood-soaked finale is one of the tensest shootouts of 70s film- Harris gets away from the mob, thanks to his machine gun, but the police are in hot pursuit, and he can only run for so long.

The performances in the film are uniformly excellent, from Franciosa as the mob man to Richard Ward as a Harlem crime kingpin (Ward, by the way, has a voice so gravelly it makes Tom Waits sound like Judy Garland). Kotto’s upright officer clashes with Quinn’s unrepentant racist, but neither of the two actors overplay their parts. Sure, they don’t like each other very much, but they have a job to do, and even if they disagree how to do it, it has to get done before more people get hurt. Paul Benjamin’s role as Harris is smaller than Kotto’s or Quinn’s, but he’s the heart of the film. He’s a crook, but the film empathizes with his case- he’s a black ex-con with no schooling just trying to get enough to get out, and he didn’t want to kill anyone (although he hardly hesitates). He’s fighting against a system that’s a lot dirtier than he is, and by his final scene in the film, he manages to pull something good out of an immoral act. If he can keep any of the kids in the finale away from crime, he’ll have done right. It’s a film that shows just how genre films often have more honest look at race-relations than the “important” movies of their time (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, anyone?).

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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