Posted by gregferrara on December 19, 2012
There must be a sense of relief when the artifice is finally stripped away from something long hidden from public view by all the ornamentation originally intended to make it more presentable, more appetizing to the average American, more palatable to the shriveling taste buds of polite society. When you’ve been stifled under a lacquer of whitewash and someone finally wipes it away, the air must be invigorating; the light, blinding. When Across 110th Street was released in New York City exactly forty years ago today, December 19th, 1972, it must have seemed like a world undiscovered by moviegoers until that moment. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the importance of the event or record the attitudes of those people in Peoria the studios were always so concerned with but looking back now, I can’t think of another movie from that period that changed the rules more. Across 110th Street, directed by Barry Shear, who would spend the rest of his career working in television, is the most underrated film of 1972, maybe the whole decade. But it comes with a price.
The road to exposing the underbelly of American life in the movies was and is a long one, looped in an endless circle with occasional detours down more dangerous side roads. Those detours sometimes amount to something, finding paths as divergent as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and The Black Legion (1937). Of course, Noir always did that kind of thing best and movies like They Live by Night (1948) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) did it better than most. But sometime in the forties, with movies like Crossfire (1947) and Home of the Brave (1949), race in America also got the reflexive treatment by Hollywood and by the time the sixties rolled around, Sidney Poitier was the film industry’s unofficial spokesman for racial understanding. In the Heat of the Night, in which white cop Gillespie (Rod Steiger) teams up with black cop Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), even won Best Picture in 1967 for showing an understanding and trust form between the two while also presenting a fairly good procedural. And in 1971, The French Connection showed the gritty, urban side of New York cops and drug runners from Europe. It won Best Picture, too. Around the same time, movies like Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song put black actors in prominent roles that portrayed the hard and brutal conditions of life on the street from both ends, as a cop and a fugitive. The term applied to both was Blaxploitation but all that really meant was that someone was finally making movies for a black urban audience without much studio support and thus, lower budgets. And then all of them; the social dramas of the thirties, the noirs and race-issue dramas of the forties and fifties, the racial understanding movies of the sixties and the gritty crime and blaxploitation dramas of the early seventies; came together into one terrifying and brutal mix of pure and complete desperation and misery called Across 110th Street. Hollywood ran away from it as fast as it could.
The movie begins with two men, Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin) and Joe Logart (Ed Bernard), pulling off a heist disguised as cops. They break into a counting session with five gangsters, three black and two white, tallying up the rackets money for that day (some $300,000). They take the money but nothing goes as planned and Harris ends up killing all five men. In a movie filled with remarkable plot details, the first and foremost is that Harris is never viewed unsympathetically. He’s also not condoned. Across 110th Street has little time nor desire to hammer home social messages in treacly Stanley Kramer fashion, rather, it seems content to simply tell the story and allow the brutality of life that pervades every character in the movie to be the price paid for their sins.
Jim and Joe escape with the help of getaway driver Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas, the actor most associated with the blaxploitation era) but not before killing two cops. The first people on their trail is the Italian mob because the stolen money belonged to them. Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) is the muscle man in charge of tracking them down. On the other end of the spectrum, the police show up to investigate with Captain Matelli (Anthony Quinn) as their muscle man. Matelli is quickly outraged to discover that the newcomer to the precinct, Lieutenant Pope (Yaphet Kotto), is in charge of the investigation. The two must work together to find the hold-up men before the mob finds them first.
And that’s where the story takes off if this is every Hollywood movie made before Across 110th Street and most made after. Most movies of the period, and even now, would be content with that dull, bland “we’ve got to look past our differences to find the killer” plot device that thinks it’s a substitution for writing real characters. But here’s where Across 110th Street stands out: It doesn’t give a damn if they ever see past their differences. Sometimes you work with people you hate. That’s life. You still got to get the job done. And getting the job done means trudging through some of the grimiest, dirtiest, filthiest places imaginable. It means going to see men like Doc Johnson (Richard Ward), a black gangster in Harlem who works with the Italian mob and tells Pope to his face that his partner, Matelli, is a racist scumbag and oh, by the way, we’ve been paying him off for years. And when that happens, there is no emotional payoff. There is no moment where Pope sits down in a coffee shop with Matelli and asks him when he lost his faith or says, angry and defeated, “I trusted you!” Nope. They just leave but not before Matelli beats up Johnson’s bodyguard because he’s upset that he got so completely humiliated in front of Pope. Then they keep looking for the hold-up men.
Those men, meanwhile, are laying low, hoping for an opportunity to get out alive. Paul Benjamin plays Jim Harris with such a sense of true despair that the audience understands why he feels nothing can ever make his life better. In a movie filled with great performances, this is the best of the lot. A few years back I wrote a piece on Paul Benjamin elsewhere, extolling his virtues as an actor and lamenting that he was never a big name in the movies. I’ve been tooting his horn for years because, really, he’s one of the best actors the movies have.
There are other great performances, too. Yaphet Kotto is exemplary as Lieutenant Pope, refusing to work outside the system to get the job done but an utter realist who knows that it means working with a lot of people who don’t share his values and having the strength to stomach that. Anthony Quinn is as good as he has ever been in a movie, period. His Captain Matelli would have Popeye Doyle telling him to lighten up. He’s tired, angry and hateful of the life he’s made for himself. But he keeps going because, really, what the hell else is he going to do? Richard Ward has some of the best scenes in the movie, as when he gives a mouthful to mob enforcer Anthony Franciosa, also excellent. And everyone else in the cast turns in believable, forceful performances. No one in this movie phones in a single second of dialogue.
And the ending is extraordinary. Not because there’s a twist ending or a grand revelation. Extraordinary because it doesn’t back down. It doesn’t give in during the final moments and give us uplift or redemption or lessons learned. In fact, its closing shot may be sincere or a mockery of racial harmony sentiment in Hollywood. In this movie, it could go either way. And it ends the way most things like this probably end, with a lot of people dead and a lot of spirits crushed.
But if I’ve made it sound like a depressing movie, it’s not. I mean, it is in that the subject matter is depressing and the characters are, I admit, essentially hopeless, but as a movie, it’s exhilarating. Exhilarating because the plot drives forward with a relentless power. Exhilarating because it abandons “police procedural” for life behind the scenes. And mainly, exhilarating because it uses the cinema as a form of visual assault, a way of forcing upon the viewer, without flinching, a side of the world rarely seen. It should be celebrated and revered. But when I said Hollywood ran from it as fast as they could I didn’t mean that facetiously. After Across 110th Street, there would be crime films and blaxploitation films but never anything else quite like it. Even Popeye Doyle got another movie and a chance to find the criminals that evaded him the first time. Sweet Sweetback got to cross that river and promise he’d be back. But Pope and Matelli, Harris and Logart and everyone else, get no such second act. The spirit can only take so much when it’s put under pressure and Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester.
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