BAMF’s Blaxploitation Archive is a collection of reviews originally written in the 1990s that appeared in the pages of BadAzz MoFo. This review and many others have been reprinted and collected in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of Blaxploitation, Volume One, which is now available for purchase.
ACROSS 110th STREET 1972 director: Barry Shear; starring Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Franciosa, Paul Benjamin, Antonio Fargas, Ed Bernard
Some movies just get better the more you watch them. Case in point: Across 110th Street. The first time I saw this movie I thought it was pretty good, and I gave it a decent review. But since then I’ve watched it many more times, studying it, dissecting it, and really growing to appreciate it for the great film it is. This is one of the better films to come out of the blaxploitation era, mixing gritty direction, a powerful script and some of the best acting to be found in any of the genre’s films. Perhaps most important, this is one of those rare films that manages to transcend the genre.
When a trio of two-bit criminals steal $300,000 from the mob, they get more than they bargained for. Screwing the whole thing up, the stick-up men manage to kill five mobsters during the heist, and two cops during the getaway. The task of finding the trigger-happy thieves falls on an odd assortment of shoulders. First there is Captain Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn), an old-school racist that runs his Harlem squad with an iron fist. His idea of interrogation involves beating the shit out of suspects, even when there is no reason to suspect them of anything. Teamed up with Mattelli is Lieutenant William Pope (Yaphet Kotto), representative of the new breed of police detective. It’s obvious from the get-go, that Pope is being groomed to replace Mattelli, and that there is little hope that either man will ever come to like, tolerate, or respect each other. In one of many powerful scenes, Pope verbally beats the crap out of Mattelli after catching the veteran cop smacking a suspect around, showing exactly why Kotto is one of the greatest actors of all time.
Also hunting the criminals, but with a less judicial intent, is Nick D’Salvio (Tony Franciosa), the son-in-law of the local mob boss. An ineffective mobster, past his prime, D’Salvio is a coward who masks his fear by being a bullying cocksucker, and knows that this is his last chance to make a name for himself and earn some respect. Too bad all the black mobsters he must work with to infiltrate the Harlem underground have nothing but contempt for him. Harlem mob boss Doc Johnson (craggly voiced actor Richard Ward) sums it up best when he tells D’Salvio, “You were a punk errand boy when you married the boss’ daughter, and you’re still a punk errand boy”.
And what about our beloved criminals Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas), and Joe Logart (Ed Bernard)? Can you say, “Nowhere to run to, baby? Nowhere to hide?”
Across 110th Street is an interesting film, that’s about much more than a botched robbery, and is more than the standard buddy cop movie many people mistake it for being. Layered with multiple story threads, complex characters and emotional density, the film is an intense character study about people who have become obsolete, and have out-lived their usefulness. At the heart and soul of Across 110th Street are three losers—Mattelli, D’Salvio, and Harris—whose lives are on a collision course as each tries desperately for one final moment of glory, before failing miserably (not to mention fatally). It is almost painful to watch as the three men head down their individual paths of ruin.
With great performances by the entire ensemble cast, especially Kotto and Ward as Doc Johnson, Across 110th Street is one of the best acted blaxploitation films. But if this movie belongs to any one actor, its Paul Benjamin (Friday Foster, Do the Right Thing) who, in an Oscar-worthy turn, gives the best performance of his career as stick-up man Jim Harris. In one of the best scenes in the film, Harris’ girlfriend (Norma Donaldson) tries to convince him there’s a better life outside the world of crime. But Harris, who suffers from mental illness, knows different. “You’re lookin’ at a 42 year-old, ex-con nigger, with no schoolin’, no trade, and a medical problem,” he says to her. “Now, who the hell would want me for anything other than washin’ cars or swingin’ a pick? You need to get your mind outta that white woman’s world.”
Based on the novel by Wally Ferris, Luther Davis’ screenplay adaptation mixes powerful, razor-sharp dialog, while at the same time allowing the story to move forward with subtle, unspoken glances. Director Barry Shear came from a long career directing mostly television cop shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Starsky & Hutch. Shear shows more style than is displayed by many television directors, and along with cinematographer Jack Priestly, the director gives Across 110th Street a gritty style that recalls some of the best cop films of the 1970s.
And finally, there is the incredible soundtrack by J.J. Johnson which includes Bobby Womack’s memorable title song. People remember Across 110th Street more for Womack’s song than anything else, but if there was ever a blaxploitation film that deserved more praise than it is given, it would have to be this one.