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Monday, January 7, 2013

Black Samson (1974) review


Rockne Tarkington (Samson), William Smith (Giovanni "Johnny" Nappa), Carol Speed (Leslie), Connie Strickland (Tina), Michael Payne (Arthur), Joe Tornatore (Harry), C.T. (Ken Bell), Titos Vandis (Giuseppe "Joseph" Nappa)

Directed by Chuck Bail

"I want these streets clean! Real clean! I want you to go home and tell your clients this neighborhood ain't for sale!"

The Short Version: Rockne Tarkington walks tall and carries a big stick in this, one of the better of the lesser known black action pictures. Samson is all about equal opportunity, too -- taking on black and white gangsters that would pollute his streets with drugs. Tarkington is fine in the lead, but William Smith dominates the film with his jaw-dropping performance as the deranged misogynistic racist Johnny Nappa. Carol Speed overacts as usual, making all sorts of faces as if she's in a silent movie. The debut feature of the versatile Chuck Bail.

In between keeping his neighborhood free of drugs and crime, Samson runs a nightclub strip bar that happens to be located on property coveted by some local gangsters. When Samson refuses to sell peacefully, the psychotic Johnny Nappa decides to eliminate the stoic public figure and anyone associated with him.

1974 was the last big year for black action pictures. The number of escapist entertainment and pure exploitation of this genre had superseded the sort of black actioner that spoke on issues of importance of that time period. Audiences were quickly losing interest once JAWS (1975) changed viewers perception in movies for all time. That's not to say there weren't some good blaxploitation movies post '74, only by this point, the genre had more or less run its course.

On that note, there's not much to distinguish BLACK SAMSON from the dozens of similar movies out at the time. Still, it's one of the best of the bunch that seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle of other films headlined by the likes of Fred Williamson or Jim Brown.

Rockne Tarkington (you may remember him from THE BANANA SPLITS) is understated in his role as the towering, noble nightclub owner whom everyone calls Samson. His reticence throughout is warranted considering his character only wants peace and wants the criminal element -- black and white -- to stay out of his territory. He's a colorful persona wearing an array of dashiki's that rival the many costume changes from Pam Grier in FOXY BROWN (1974). He also carries a big stick -- a staff of truth if you will, that punctuates his sentences when words alone don't seem to get through.

Tarkington also showed promise as a sadistic villain in the underrated, brutal, and little seen THE NO MERCY MAN (1973). One of the numerous 'crazed Vietnam vet' movies, it's a modern day western that also contains elements of the wildly popular classic WALKING TALL (1974).

"You are not paid to think. You are paid to talk. And another thing you fuckin worm! My name is Mr. Nappa to MR. NAPPA!! And don't you forget it!"

When the history of cinema is written, William Smith must be in there somewhere for his vast and varied resume; as well as living a life filled with enough accomplishments for several lifetimes. His role as Johnny Nappa is one of his best -- which is saying a lot. Out of all the movies I've seen with Smith, this is quite possibly his most sadistic role as a villain. That, too, is saying a lot. Smith often overshadowed his co-stars and his acting here is top notch. Nappa is utterly reprehensible. He kills on a whim -- his own men and others -- and mercilessly mistreats and physically abuses his girlfriend.

His character is also the sort of racist, comic cracker found in any number of black action pictures. But Smith's portrayal manages to trounce many of those with his little nuances, and not just his frequent hate-filled spewings of racial epithets. Even if the rest of the movie were lousy, Smith's performance makes it worthwhile; and it helps he gets lots of screentime, possibly more than Samson does.

Carol Speed -- whom I do like -- overacts as usual making some bizarre facial contortions that end up turning scenes that should exude strength or suspense into comedy. Her massive afro is more memorable than her character. She performed in a similar fashion in other pictures like THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972) and SAVAGE! (1973). 

She really got to gorge on the scenery in ABBY (1974), the black version of THE EXORCIST (1973) also starring the venerable William Marshall.

Connie Strickland plays the object of Nappa's affliction; relegated to being punched around, threatened, or tossed out of a moving car, she sticks by his side like a doting puppy dog despite his flagrantly savage treatment of her. Her character adds even more layers of abhorrence towards the despicable Nappa. She had an impressive, if brief career in exploitation movies including THE ROOMMATES (1973), THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS (1974) and ACT OF VENGEANCE (1974) among a few others.

There's also some interesting themes just beneath the surface in Daniel Cady's script (this likely being his best work) involving the excitable Nappa wishing to remove Samson in the most violent way imaginable. His uncle, an aging gangster, tries to convince him to leave Samson alone, but Nappa refuses, claiming that eliminating Samson is a "piece of cake." His uncle responds with "I knew a man who choked on a piece of cake." 

Again, the script focuses so much time on Nappa as this disgusting gangster who wants to be on top by any means necessary. He's the more interesting character, while Samson is this quiet, yet powerful force of nature whose peaceful demeanor serves him well once the surprising conclusion rolls around. He never goes on the attack, but stays on defense. Samson is a man with a plan and thinks ahead. He's probably the only black action character that doesn't let revenge drive his thinking. Sadly, his "bouncer", his pet lion Udu, never gets to maul a bad guy.

Speaking of the finale, it redefines 'neighborhood watch' and acts as a perfect public service announcement for those wishing to keep undesirable elements out of their section of town. It really is a great ending for a black actioner that should be more well known.

Chuck Bail, the director, had a varied career that spanned not only directing, but also as an actor, a writer, and a stuntman. BLACK SAMSON was his first feature, which then led to the impressive, if underrated Warner-Shaw Brothers co-production CLEOPATRA JONES & THE CASINO OF GOLD; released the following year. THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976) furthered his expertise in handling big action scenes.

The music of BLACK SAMSON is nothing memorable, although the title character does get his own theme song. The action sequences are mostly down to fist fights and some moderate car chases, but they're all well done for the most part. Like Samson himself, the film has more strengths than weaknesses. An impressive debut for Bail and a fine entry for fans of black action pictures.

This review is representative of the WB two disc set including BLACK BELT JONES, HOT POTATO and THREE THE HARD WAY.

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