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Across 110th Street

Posted by martinteller on October 31, 2015

Three hoods have a plan. Ringleader Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), an ex-con with no prospects and a bad case of epilepsy, recruits sidekick Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) and freewheeling wheelman Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas) to steal $300,000 from the mob. But things go awry (don’t they always?) and they leave 7 bodies in their wake, including two police officers. Now they’re wanted by the mob — led by the boss’s son-in-law, Nick (Anthony Franciosa) — and the cops, especially aging Capt. Mitelli (Anthony Quinn) and the up-and-coming Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto).

An appropriate film to watch on the eve of Noir-vember. Barry Shear’s blaxploitation cop drama is drenched in noir style, and noir cynicism. There are corrupt cops and virtuous cops and cops just walking a beat. There are criminals from the desperate to the kingpin. There are the innocent bystanders and long-suffering wives and lovers, collateral damage in the urban struggle for dominance, status, control. And goddamn if Franciosa isn’t channeling Burt Lancaster.

I’m just gonna namedrop a bunch of movie titles here, because that’s often how I process films. First there’s the parade of recognizable faces. Benjamin’s is unforgettable and I instantly thought “Hey, it’s ML from Do the Right Thing!”.  Fargas as well has a distinctive face, I probably know him best from I’m Gonna Get You Sucka. There’s Burt Young from the Rocky franchise in a very small role, and Charles McGregor from Blazing Saddles. A couple others I recognized too. And there’s Quinn, whose simmering brutality recalls La Strada, and Kotto, flashing forward to Agent Mosely in Midnight Run.

Various other movies came to mind while watching. The racial politics of In the Heat of the Night and No Way Out (the Poitier/Widmark one, not the Costner one). The central scenario — cops and criminals on the same manhunt — is vaguely reminiscent of M. Criminals hiding out of course brings to mind any number of noirs, but in particular I thought of The Burglar when Jim is talking about his tropical dreams. Benjamin’s performance at the end made me think of Jack Palance in Panic in the Streets. But enough of that. In the end, Across 110th Street is its own movie and just listing other movies do not a review make.

A lot of the thematic content is familiar territory, and to some degree the film traffics in well-worn clichés. But not in an overly tiresome manner. While I wouldn’t say it feels fresh, it does feel real. Characters are given more depth than you might expect. Some of them are mere archetypes and stereotypes, but others are given a little more meat on their bones. Pope’s struggle to be taken seriously as a cop, paralleled nicely by Nick’s struggle to be taken seriously as a gangster. Mitelli faced with being nudged into retirement. Harris battling his affliction as well as his bitterness about a society that has no place for him. Which one makes his lip tremble so? Probably both.

In 1992, a CD came out called Pimps, Players and Private Eyes. At that point in my life I’d never seen a blaxploitation film, but as a fan of soul & funk (especially Curtis Mayfield) I picked it up. The compilation leads off with one of its best and most memorable songs, Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”. It’s a passionate, anthemic tune that kicks off the movie. None of the other music in the film lives up to it, but it’s pretty decent. Likewise, cinematographer Jack Priestly pulls off some good shots… and a few great ones, especially when emphasizing power relationships.

Ultimately, I wasn’t enthralled by the movie. Perhaps a bit too nihilistic for my tastes, without much of a point of view beyond “everything is terrible”. Which is a very noir sentiment, but this is a shade more depressing than the cynicism of noir. Maybe the execution needs a little more panache, a solid hook, or some sparkling dialogue. But it’s a solid watch, and one of the better examples of the blaxploitation genre that I’ve seen. Rating: Very Good (80)

IMDb
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