Random Film of the Week: Across 110th Street

Across 110th St_MPNo, it’s NOT “Blaxploitation Week” here at DAF because believe it or else, Across 110th Street isn’t really an exploitation film at all. Sure it’s got sudden (but VERY expected) bursts of violence, plenty of (way too brightly colored) blood spilled, swearing out the wazoo, hard drug usage, funky fashions and Afros all wrapped in very palpable sense of dread that lurks around from the moment the film gets underway until its inevitable conclusion. Oh, and that urban gangster theme, stereotypical I-tal-i-an mobsters getting needlessly brutal, an equally racist white cop (Anthony Quinn) and the fresh to the precinct black detective (Yaphet Kotto) who has to work with him on his first major case may all make you THINK you know what you’re getting into.

But then a funny thing happens after the title credits roll… the film surprises you with a surprisingly well shot and tense crime action/thriller with a deliberately relentless tone that escalates as things spiral out of control. Stealing drug money from the mob is a bad idea in any dramatic film, but this film lets you watch the doomed men pull off their dirty deed successfully while letting you see all too clearly that they’re not going far with their ill-gotten gains…

In fact, the karmic retribution not only extends to the two robbers and their getaway driver, but to Quinn’s racist cop, Anthony Franciosa’s racist low-level gangster and a bunch of assorted henchmen and innocents who get caught up in the brutality that follows. Quinn’s angry Captain Mattelli in particular is a target for his years of general abuse to almost anyone of color, while Franciosa’s Nick D’Salvio gets his well deserved just desserts as well. But not before he horrifically tortures and murders Henry Jackson, the thieves’ getaway driver (Antonio Fargas) in the film’s most notorious scene.

Jackson’s fate is sealed with a kiss when he very foolishly decides to splurge some of his cut of the mob loot at a local whorehouse and is discovered, beaten to a (very) bloody pulp and carted off to be taken care of for good. While we don’t see the actual torturing happen onscreen after he’s hauled away, we do see a brief flash the aftermath as the brutalized and now dying man is rushed to a hospital in an ambulance. It’s not pretty and by then, if you haven’t figured out this film is serious business, you’re clearly not paying attention. At least the poor guy went out after living it up one final time. The other two men barely have time to breathe as the heat comes down on them with no mercy…

This is a film where most of the male cast is unlikable and most of the few women are all treated poorly or unfairly by those men or are seen as objects by other men. But this is entirely acceptable because this isn’t supposed to be a happy movie at all. This bleakness makes the film a pretty dreary viewing experience as the noose tightens around the two thieves (literally in one scene), who throw all caution to the wind as they give in to fate’s wheel. As noted, this is a particularly violent film and the stunt work here is pretty impressive and “realistic” despite the fake blood splashing about. There’s a great shootout/car wreck/fire scene that’s still quite effective and the combination of on location shooting, copious hand-held camera shots and excellent use of music really hammer this one home.

By the surprising ending (or not so surprising if you were paying careful attention), there are really no “winners” here, just a bunch of corpses and a lot of questions that can’t be answered because the people who may had had those answers are all dead. As for the money? Well, you’ll see. As I often suggest when recommending something as dark and brilliant as this film, I’d keep a comedy or cartoon handy so you can rinse the filth from your brain and eyeballs afterwards. If you’re in the mood for an actual period blaxploitation send up with a comic edge, Cotton Comes to Harlem comes (very) highly recommended as a chaser. Yeah, I’ll get to that one soon enough. Not now, as I don’t want you to think it’s “Blaxploitation Week” or anything like that…

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10 thoughts on “Random Film of the Week: Across 110th Street

  1. I adore this movie, for the reasons you mention here. Just a great crime thriller with a dramatic edge….I especially like that most of the characters get a moment where they are center stage. You also can’t beat the score. Of course, I did mistake of reading the book a few years back…it’s completely skippable (let’s put it this way-do you think the story would be better if Anthony Francoisa’s insecure asshole was a super cool bad-ass who was passed over by the mob hierarchy for not being strongly related to anyone?)…one of the rare cases where the movie is an improvement on the book .

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    • I saw the paperback a bunch of years back in a used bookstore and picked it up, but some clerk saw me holding it, walked over asked if I’d seen the film and when I said I had, told me it was pretty bad and that the film was MUCH better. That made me laugh because it was the first time I’d ever heard that and when I asked what made it worse, he noted that D’Salvo was portrayed as you noted. Yeah, that didn’t work for me (especially after I read a few pages and was surprised at the James Bond lite stuff going on with the character). Back on the shelf it went and I got a better book instead. I’m also surprised there’s not been a remake, although I think I recall reading somewhere that a follow-up was discussed. I’ve always thought Cotton Comes to Harlem is the perfect mirror to this because it has similar thematic elements but is played very much for laughs while having a serious side underneath all the fun stuff…

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      • I work in a college library that opened in 1971 and has a seemingly not updated since then leisure reading section-I am glad I didn’t pay for it. I had the reverse problem with Cotton-I read Chester Himes’ excellent novels first and had trouble adjusting. Though I somehow saw the sequel even before that and loved it, so maybe I just need to give it another shot.

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      • Yeah, I didn’t discover the books until long after I’d seen both films, so I had already set in my mind that they were fun films. Then I read them and the films slipped a bit on my “like” scale, but are still up there as far as genre flicks go. Hell, they both beat Truck Turner to death (although that one makes me laugh a lot as well)…

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      • Truck Turner has some AMAZING things in it, but the Jones and Johnson flicks are trying for setting entirely different and are on another level, I agree. I am sure I would love Cotton more if I had seen it earlier; as it is I should really give it another shot, it’s probably been fifteen years!

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      • I think Cotton was required viewing for folks in my area because I recall it coming up a lot (as in “What? You didn’t see it yet?”). I recall seeing it on TV with The Watermelon Man on afterwards and as a kid, being completely baffled by the latter until I “got” the message around the ending. Or thought I did…

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      • As a guy from suburban CT, I am pretty sure Cotton came up for me in books on film before anything else-but I do remember seeing ads for Watermelon Man showings on TV and seeing it in the video store-but I’ve still not managed to get to it, even though I love Cambridge in everything I’ve seen him in!

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      • Oh, Watermelon Man is a must just for the subject matter and how Godfrey handles it. I still wonder how the hell this even got made, but that said, it’s not as intentionally insane as Putney Swope was (but it still has some pretty sharp teeth)…

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    • Oh, it’s a pretty grim gem, that’s for sure. And ha! After that post you ran earlier today (Hi, Roy!), I’d think nothing would make you ashamed… 😀

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