Thursday, January 27, 2011

Across 110th Street (1972) review


Anthony Quinn (Captain Mattelli), Yaphet Kotto (Lieutenant William Pope), Anthony Franciosa (Nick D'Salvio), Antonio Fargas (Henry J. Jackson), Frank Mascetta (Don Gennaro), Richard Ward (Doc Johnson), Gilbert Lewis (Shevvy), Paul Benjamin (Jim Harris), Ed Bernard (Joe Logart), Norma Donaldson (Gloria Roberts)

Directed by Barry Shear

"Nick, today they took our bank in Harlem for over $300,000 dollars...They killed two of the family, two cops and two of their own. Nick, aim for the money, aim for the man, but we have to teach them a lesson...or we lose Harlem! If we lose Harlem, we lose a lot more than the money; we lose all prestige..."

The Short Version: Brutal, bloody and brilliant crime thriller that touches on many topics that are still relevant today. One of the most violent movies of the 1970s, the strong performances, tightly written screenplay and incendiary dialog make the more vicious sequences that more savage even when we see nothing at all. A serious highlight of the decade and a film unfairly lumped in with the blaxploitation genre. There's a lot more to say here than car chases, shootouts and comic book heroes and villains. The individuals and situations populating 110th STREET are all too real.

Three small time hoods hold up a syndicate transaction stealing $300,000 from the mafia and killing everyone in the room including two mafiosi and two cops. Gangster, Nick D'Salvio seeks revenge against the thieves and scours the city for their blood while two cops of different races--one a grumpy white bigot about to retire and the other a black by the book detective trying to impress his superiors--try to work together to close the case before the streets of Harlem become a bloodbath.

This intensely gritty, grubby and gruesome crime drama is one of the most underrated thrillers from the boundless creativity that was the 1970s. Often lumped in with the mindless, but enjoyably over the top blaxploitation actioners, ACROSS 110TH STREET (1972) is one of a handful of dramatically race themed films that transcends the brutally comic book confines of the genre and emerges as a thought provokingly depressing view of racism, chaos and corruption in all manner of society from the squalor of the underpriveledged, to the civic protectorate and also the upper echelon of the crime syndicates that control whole cities. Save for Kotto and Donaldson's characters, virtually no one has any redeeming qualities.

"Hey, you watch your motherfuckin' mouth, white boy! You might be somethin' big to those booty butts that you work over down at the station, but goddamnit, this is me...Doc Motherfuckin' Johnson! You come runnin' in here 'cuz a couple o' your cops got knotted...especially because one was white! Your friend is a racist son of a bitch! He always has been, they all are! If you're smart, you'll stick with me."--Doc "motherfuckin' Johnson to Mattelli and Pope.

"We been givin' Mattelli $2,500 a month for the past two years...and he come in here givin' me orders, shit! He works for me...same as the whores and the dealers!"--Doc "motherfuckin' Johnson to Pope

"You're lookin' at a 42 year old ex con nigga...with no schooling, no trade and a medical problem! Now who the hell'd want me for anything but washin' cars and swingin' a pick?! You gotta get your mind outa' that white woman's dream!!"--Jim Harris to his girlfriend, Gloria Roberts after she begs him to give the money back.

Shear's slimy vision of 70s violence, corruption and the impoverished (based on the novel by Wally Ferris) is a startlingly well made, brilliantly acted, incendiary thriller that's one of the best films of its kind. The screenplay is an absorbing work that covers all the bases in a fashion that would be copied in the following years equally explosive and similarly themed DETROIT 9000 (1973). One of the areas covered is the way in which people live and how they struggle. Those with maladies, no education and no hope are left with two choices--struggle, or take the "easy way out". For the three men who rip off the mob, the "easy way out" proves to be the wrong choice.

"Look, I'm sick and tired of your liberal bullshit! You better make up your mind--are you a cop, or one o' them social workers?!"--Mattelli to Pope

The racially charged dialog in Shear's movie is on fire and speaks volumes on the futile struggle of race relations on multiple levels. The exchanges between the white and black mob factions are incredibly tense. This tension isn't relegated to the mobsters, but also to the forces of law and order. Capt. Mattelli (Quinn, who also Executive Produced) is a 55 year old detective whose secretly been on the take for a few years and threatened with being pushed out by a new upstart cop named William Pope, who also happens to be black. The two have an uneasy partnership, but on this case, Mattelli is working for Pope. The two have their own heated exchanges, but eventually, both come to work together to find the three destitute robbers before the mob spreads their blood all over Harlem.

"You be happy Frank. The last sucker that put his hands on me...lost'em."

There's not a bad performance out of the bunch, but something else stands out in this debauched landscape--the violence. While it's not a non stop barrage of action, the brutality on display is incredible. Squibs flow generously from bullet riddled victims and the torture scenes, whether onscreen, or off, have a visceral punch about them that stands with todays level of ferociousness on the screen. One scene in particular is when the bloodthirsty Nick D'Salvio locates the driver, Henry Jackson, whooping it up and having a grand time in a whorehouse filled with loose women, trannies and all manner of lowlifes.

Nick busts a glass in his face and beats Henry to a pulp as others stand around and gawk. One of the whores that was enjoying Henry's time and money now seems to not care at all after one of the gangsters gives her some money after handing over his clothes. Taking the near dead man out to torture him some more, the screen dissolves to Henry in an ambulance, his eyes gouged out and about to die. We learn through dialog that he was crucified and castrated by Nick and his cronies. Henry dies before Mattelli and Pope can get any information out of him. Antonio Fargas (FOXY BROWN, STARSKY & HUTCH) plays Henry and his supporting role is a stand out performance and a fine actor who shined throughout the decade.

The film further benefits from a strong musical score by J.J. Johnson and songs by Bobby Womack. Interestingly enough, whenever there's a killing, or someone is tortured, there's no music at all. Only the screams, the blood curdling cries of pain act as substitute for any musical alleviation. This lack of music intensifies the grim finality of these sequences. The film also adopts a documentary approach in a number of scenes that, when combined with the accomplished performances adds to the realism immersing the viewer in this world of carnality, corruption and cruelty. If Shear's intention was creating a volatile expression of race relations through the use of a gun, knife or fist pointed at close ups of bugged out eyes, facial twitches and fear engulfed visages, he succeeded admirably.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD

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