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Harlem Is The Capital of Every Ghetto Town

February 13th, 2011 · 4 Comments

Promoting I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988, Steve James, who appeared as “Kung Fu Joe” in the blaxploitation spoof, commented: “I always hated that label ‘blaxploitation.’ I wondered, why couldn’t there just be films with black stars? You know, you’d go around the corner from a theater showing one of them, and there’d be Dirty Harry. And nobody was calling it ‘whitesploitation.'” Right on, Steve! So in February, I’ll take a look at ten films featuring black stars from a certain era.

Across 110th Street
Directed by Barry Shear
Screenplay by Luther Davis, based on the novel Across 110th by Wally Ferris
Produced by Ralph Serpe, Fouad Said
102 minutes

Short on pimps, prostitutes or private dicks, long on urban decay as New York caught a peek at itself in the mirror, Across 110th Street is one of the few legitimate A-movies to emerge from the “blaxploitation” genre. Hitting bookshelves in 1970, Across 110th was the first and last published novel by Wally Ferris, a career television cameraman who worked at WNEW in Manhattan for many years. United Artists acquired film rights and Film Guarantors — a motion picture completion bond company — made what would be a brief splash into production. Producer Fouad Said hired veteran playwright/ screenwriter Luther Davis to adapt a script and Barry Shear, whose only notable feature was the ’60s cult movie Wild In The Streets, to direct; Shear did have hundreds of hours of TV credits on his resume, from Hawaii Five-O to Julia to The Streets of San Francisco.

Anthony Quinn came on board as executive producer, but when the role of Frank Matelli was apparently turned down by John Wayne and Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, Quinn stepped in front of the camera. Across 110th Street barely qualifies as “blaxploitation”; the same production could have been staged a decade earlier (or later) and would be far better known as the morally complex, street smart film noir it actually is. The bleak but fast moving story examines how one robbery ripples across a community, from the cops struggling to keep the peace, to the perps looking to make a clean getaway, to the civilians trying to make it through the day. While Quinn doesn’t seem fully committed to his character of Archie Bunker cop, Yaphet Kotto and Paul Benjamin are electric. Bobby Womack wrote (with J.J. Johnson) and performed five smooth tunes.

Summer gets a whole lot hotter when three black men — epileptic ex-con Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), dry cleaner Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) and driver Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas) — rob a bank operated by the Italian mob in Harlem. The brazen heist ends with two blacks, two Italians and two New York City police officers dead and flips the neighborhood upside down. Don Gennarro (Frank Mascetta) dispatches his dilettante son-in-law Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) to restore order by capturing the perpetrators and making an example of them. Meanwhile, Capt. Frank Matelli (Anthony Quinn), a veteran of enforcing his own style of law in Harlem, is disconcerted to learn that the investigation has been handed to Lt. William Pope (Yaphet Kotto), whose youth and ethnicity reflect the new NYPD.

Sent uptown to crack skulls, D’Salvio is greeted as little more than “a punk errand boy” by Doc Johnson (Richard Ward), the kingpin who runs Harlem on behalf of the Italians. Doc dispatches his fearsome right hand man Shevvy (Gilbert Lewis) to piece together information on the robbery, one $100 bill at a time. Shevvy approaches a dancer named Laurelene (Gloria Hendry) for help, unaware that her boyfriend Jim Harris is the man they’re after. Trying to stay one step ahead of the hoods, Matelli and Pope are slowed by contrasting methods in everything from how to question a suspect to how to do favors in Harlem. As the night drags on, the 55-year-old cop realizes that his era is over. Mobsters, police and thieves finally meet atop an abandoned tenement on Lenox Avenue & 142nd Street, where Harris is holed up and armed to the teeth.

What do you say?

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Based on novel · Blaxploitation · Crooked officer · Dreams and visions · Forensic evidence · Gangsters and hoodlums · Heist · Hitman · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Midlife crisis · Shootout

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BlackCinemaAtLarge // Feb 13, 2011 at 8:11 am

    i’ve never, ever like the term blaxploitation or black exploitation either. can’t stand it, really.

  • 2 roger // Feb 15, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Joe, Great post. This film impressed me greatly as a mid-70s crime film with the miasma of the Vietnam war and Watergate lapping at its edges. You’re right that it fell into the “blaxploitation” label merely by being released during that period, but it deserves a relook, especially for the powerful combo of Kotto and Quinn in the same film.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Feb 15, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Invisibelle: I remember reading that comment from Steve James years ago and found it so true. Liberals sometimes get a little carried away stamping out social injustice. There’s a whole generation of actors I would never have seen or heard about if not for these movies, which have obviously had their impact on pop culture as well. Thanks for commenting!

    Roger: I think Across 110th Street is a great example of no style working better than lots of style. The pageantry a lot of other movies flaunted during the same period is conspicuously absent from this one, as if it has something on its mind. Thanks so much for commenting!

  • 4 Sandy // Feb 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    I’ve seen the movie only in its edited version and I’m anxious to get an uncut version. I heard that Paul Benjamin, who plays Jimmy Harris the tall gunman, re-wrote for his character and the aspects surrounding him; the director gave him creative expression and I think he did an excellent job. My sister’s friend who wasn’t even born in the decade has since seen the film and digs this cat.

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