Across 110th Street is partly a blaxploitation flick, partly a cop drama and partly a sociopolitical study. Today it largely still holds up in all three ways, never succumbing to the disparate temptations of merely becoming one part or another. Rather, this is a different animal, a gritty, hyper-violent testosterone-fueled battle to the bitterest—and strangely most poetic—of ends. Directed by Barry Shear with an eclectic dynamism that allows for the outer peels of the more mundane and obligatory genre ingredients to glide before the viewer with almost effortless harmony. The over-the-top outpouring of unmitigated machismo and manly palaver supply the picture with a sheen of kineticism that occasionally overcompensates for the undeniable thinness of the actual plot. Shear's noirish camera angles, often taking on a perspective that categorically underlines the turmoil at the multiple hearts of the film's three-pronged narratives' protagonists. The successfulness of couching these individuals in the depressing milieu of early 1970s New York City is quite incisively doubtless, lending a credibility to the rambunctious crime thriller proceedings.
Those protagonists belong to three separate sets of story. Firstly, two policeman, one Captain Mattelli, played with almost smoldering intensity by Anthony Quinn, a vicious cop long on the take, and an ambitious but forthrightly scrupulous, Lieutenant Pope, embodied by a frequently quietly stirring Yaphet Kotto. Mattelli, as played by Quinn, is a brutish racist, who enjoys an intrinsically baffling, yet subtly understandable, relationship with many a street-trekking thug, recalling the previous year's The French Connection. Kotto's Pope is restrained—at least when compared to Mattelli—yet he palpably carries with him the nuanced, reflexively burning objective of ensuring his place as a black cop in New York City is understood by both those behind the shield of law enforcement and behind the clout heedlessly enjoyed by the elite criminal elements of the city. Some of those elite criminal elements have thrived by keeping compromised policemen like Mattelli on the take, providing their illicit business under an expansive and powerful aegis.
Secondly, three black hoods, named Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) and J. Jackson (Antonio Fargas), disguising themselves as uniformed policemen, fearlessly enrage the Mafia by shooting up two of its soldiers, two black gangsters, steal three hundred thousand dollars in cash and finally kill two policemen trying to prevent the desperately brazen thieves from escaping the scene. Harris, armed with a machine gun, efficaciously mows down adversaries. At first the actions of these reckless gunmen evoke uncomplicated antipathy. However, as the film progresses its thematic horizons, an excitingly constructed framing of empathy emerges, particularly imbuing Benjamin's Harris with a sensibility that retroactively informs his present predicament. Confronted by the woman he loves about the loot he has stolen—and by the realization given voice by her that he will not live to see the end of the week—he indignantly vociferates a monologue of sensational potency. (He would be well served to receive the words another woman warning another criminally self-involved and self-destructive man in Jules Dassin's Rififi: “There are kids... millions of kids who grew up poor. Like you. How did it happen... What was the difference between you and them that you became a hood, a tough guy, and not them? Know what I think... they're the tough guys, not you.”)
Thirdly, the rapacious Mafia. Anthony Franciosa is frightening as Nick D'Salvio, a mentally unbalanced enforcer who is capable of exploding with feral malevolence at almost any moment. D'Salvio is given the directive by a much older crime boss of the family early in the picture to send the individuals responsible for the heist an unmistakable message. And so he and his lieutenants weave throughout the city, usually ruffling more feathers than necessary to unearth the whereabouts of the three men. In this way, the picture operates like Fritz Lang's classic masterpiece M, as the police and mob both tirelessly seek the individual(s) whose misdeed has brought about the respective furies of each side of the law.
Attendant theatricality may sometimes make the film inconsistent in its full-rounded characterizations and storyline architecture. A barroom sequence of breathtaking brutality wallows in the vileness of the action; for a while, Shear's goals have apparently betrayed him. Yet it is merely apparent—and thankfully misleading. The forlorn ambulance ride later on, almost enmeshed in the briefly humorous, mostly repulsive, convincingly realistic incongruity of such a bizarrely uncontrollable situation, is made of something heartbreaking in its palpable incompatibility with the ideals of a better world.
Correspondingly bubbling and simmering, the film, animated as it is with its latently engrossing performances, shines with an almost timeless energy defying all manner of datedness. The harrowing pit at the center of the film is not the end all, be all of its circumferential, multi-plotted coagulation. The titular song written and performed by Bobby Womack, with its earnest empathetic rendition of plighted existence, is richly endowed with the reasonable desire to hang on longer to break free of the proverbial shackles that bind. Lurking below the hardboiled action is the mounting of crushing tragedy. Just as the film seems to finally descend into nihilistic barbarity in its closing sequence, the picture does a surprising and beautiful thing, lyrically closing itself off with a poetic final image that is equally shocking, condign and poignant.
Shot in a grainy, monochromatic and begrimed stylistic, Shear's crime picture initially wallops the spectator, but its probity is of a sterner condition than its cathartic and gleefully bloody sequences of violence. Behind the superficialities of those obligatory ingredients rests a film of almost penetrative malaise and despair. That unsightliness slowly gives the film a contrasting diamantine interior of gaunt desires and dreams, marinated in the gauzy blush of hope. As such, Across 110th Street is tirelessly poised to display an unlikely warmth beneath the gangland horrors and precinct politics, postulating nothing less than the beckoning discourse people throughout time immemorial have sought, in these lives and the marginally more quotidian among them, that asks, why are things this way?