Saturday, November 8, 2008

Across 110th Street (1972)

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?


christian said...

Very gritty and exploitive film. The scene with Antonio Vargas getting the shit kicked out of him is still tough to watch. I like the relationship between Quinn and Kotto. And that theme song!

Good stuff Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Christian.

You're right, it's highly gritty and exploitive. That barroom scene with Antonio's character being brutalized is indeed very tough to watch.

Great theme song, of course!

Thanks again.

mike said...

I just love how GRITTY and EDGY this movie is. It was a time when Hollywood movies could dare to be uncompromising as you point out. Fine review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, I concur, Mike, and thank you for the kind words.

Sam Juliano said...

Actually Christian, that soulful theme song (by Bobby Womack) was used to excellent effect if I recall in Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN. ACROSS 110TH STREET is certainly a product of it's era, as it's primary appeal at this point in time is it's naturalistic and uncontrived dialogue, period clothes and behavioral mores. Hence we can rightfully assert (as Alexander implies in his opening that it is not really an exploitation flick) that the violence in the film is not gratuitous, but a natural outgrowth of the situation in these crime-ridden urban hamlets. Of course, the on-location Harlem filming lent the film another measure of authenticity, especially since hand-held cameras were employed I think.
I like Alexander's assertion that it's blaxploitation label has been mitigated by the cop drama genre and as a "sociopolitical study."
I appreciated too the resurrection of the pantheon of characters, including the two policemen (Quinn and Yaphet Koto) three black hoods and that Mafia figure, played by Anthony Franciosa.
The film does still have raw poer, allure and genre appeal, and I think you made a good case for it here largely as a sociopolitical film, which still holds up as a fine piece of entertainment.
Your earlier reference to THE FRENCH CONNECTION, again renewed my anger LOL!! THE FRENCH CONNECTION winning the Best Picture Oscar over THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE!?!? One of the Academy's most heinous moments.
Fabulous final paragraph, which places everthing that came before in proper perspective.

Bravura review, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the delightfully detailed comment and kind words as always, Sam.

I believe that certain sequences were shot with hand-held cameras; perhaps more sequences that I would have guessed. Superfly certainly had terrific hand-held camerawork, which was more obvious in its usage.

The Womack song was indeed used to splendid effect by Quentin Tarantino for Jackie Brown; whenever I hear the song I actually think about that film.

I do likewise agree with you about the uncontrived, realistic dialogue. Especially with the hoods, I thought this film was truer than just about any film I have seen with similarly positioned figures. Thank you again.

Alexander Coleman said...

I must remember how easily riled up Sam becomes at the mere mention of The French Connection. :-)

Christopher said...

I watched this tonight for the first time and enjoyed the hell out of it. Thanks for reviewing it and bringing it to my attention. Superb analysis. Soulful movie under all the gritty stuff like you write.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Christopher, I am pleased that you enjoyed the film and the review.

christian said...

I had the pleasure of telling Robert Forster I cry at the end of JACKIE BROWN when Pam Grier sings along with "Across 110th Street" -- it's one of QT'S finest moments. Perfect use of the song in the film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Christian, that probably is Tarantino's finest moment, concluding his best film (in my not so humble opinion in this instance). Because of this film I just know I'll be watching Jackie Brown in the next ten days or so, it's inevitable.

Alexander Coleman said...

Christian, having the opportunity to tell Robert Forster that makes me turn green with envy, haha.

Daniel Getahun said...

I know nothing about this movie other than the song, which of course I also know exclusively from Jackie Brown. Blaxploitation is really a genre I am not well versed in, but I imagine it's influential enough (Tarantino, etc.) that I should probably look into it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Blaxploitation is an interesting genre to get into. I was tempted to discuss more blaxploitation flicks in this review but as I don't honestly consider this straight blaxploitation, but rather a hybrid (as my first sentence notes), I opted to not go there.

Shaft came out the year before in 1971--and both it and this film focus primarily on black criminals vs. the Italian Mafia in and around Harlem (interestingly in each case with a black cop in the middle); Superfly arrived the same year as this.

As we're in a roundabout way touching on Pam Grier with Jackie Brown, other blaxploitation movies worth seeking out for their cultural relevance are Foxy Brown (for which Tarantino in part named his protagonist and 1997 film) and Coffy.

I've seen many blaxploitation movies, though, but I won't indulge too much in dropping titles. Those are some of the "biggies," however, Daniel.

Yes, I suppose the song is much more famous than the movie. Funny how a year ago when American Gangster came out, and Ridley Scott decided to use the song, many, including myself, immediately thought back to Jackie Brown first and foremost.

Daniel Getahun said...

Thanks for the insights.

So yes, Tarantino officially took ownership of this song forever. I, too, only thought of Jackie Brown when it was used in American Gangster.

Can anybody make a case for the 2001 Shaft being in any way redeemable? I don't think so.

Alexander Coleman said...

Don't tell me you've seen the remake and not the original, Daniel.

I'll ban you from my site. :)

Seriously, however, it's been, I think, seven years since I saw that film. I do remember Christian Bale being kind of effective as the bad guy. Redeemable, though? No.

Daniel Getahun said...

No no, I've definitely seen both, and prefer the original. Elizabeth Banks was also in the remake. What a weird cast and bad movie.

Alexander Coleman said...

Oh, good, I thought you were made of better stuff than that, Daniel! :)

Yes, Elizabeth Banks. Just a rather bad movie, though.

Moses Hernandez said...

This is a brutal, unflinching movie but Mr. Coleman makes the incisive point that there is a real heart beating underneath all of the shootouts and beatings. Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto are both great, but so is Paul Benjamin. Tony Franciosa is cast against type here to great effect.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Moses, I'm glad you stopped by and commented. Needless to say I'm in complete agreement.