Across 110th Street (1972)
April 10, 2016 5:39 PM - Subscribe

Two New York City cops go after amateur crooks who are trying to rip off the Mafia and start a gang war.
What kind of blaxploitation flick is this, anyway? Conventional wisdom tells us that the Hollywood “black film” of the early and middle 1970s thrived by providing its (typically black, typically inner-city) audience with vicarious thrills via the adventures of heroic black dicks or stylish black scofflaws who stick it to The Man. They were winners on both grand and intimate scales: Shaft runs the mob out of Harlem in between trading racial bon mots with dumb Eye-talian goons. In marked contrast, when D’Salvio defiantly hails Henry (one of the wanted escapees) in a Harlem bordello with a cheerful “Hey, n----!” it’s the prelude not to the mobster’s own pistol whipping at the hands of a black James Bond but rather to the savagely inhuman beating of the fugitive. With the indifferent blessing of the black henchmen accompanying D’Salvio on his murderous errand, as whores scream and businessmen flee for the exits, Henry is pummeled with jackhammer force; he dies in the following scene, his eyes gouged out and his balls cut off. This brutally horrific turn—maybe the toughest moment in a movie dominated by tough moments—makes the relative financial success of 110th (the 40th top-grossing film of 1973) even more puzzling. This is what black audiences paid to see?

Of course, filmgoers in the heady, post-Production Code days of the early ‘70s were frequently witness to just as bad if not worse, and violence was especially prevalent amidst the black film boom. Today, most have forgotten that the so-called blaxploitation period fostered an impressive range of movie types and genres, from Western to arthouse to horror to biopic, that is unduplicated in black film history. Violence as theme or as narrative detail is one element that ties together most of these disparate works, from Sounder (1972) to Sparkle (1976); violent death seeps even into an apparently benign nostalgia piece like Cooley High (1975), grounding that film in a menacing reality absent from its obvious (white) antecedent, American Graffiti (1973).

But violence, especially violence at the expense of the black community, has seldom been more candidly dissected and critiqued in American film as it is in Across 110th Street. What distinguishes its bloodletting from that in other Hollywood films (“black” or “white”) of the time is its unsparing inescapability and its matter-of-factness—these qualities give the work its moral charge. The violence visited upon the characters satiates no one, neither characters nor spectators, and none of the many deaths is likely to bring a cheer even from the most sadistic audience. Violence is meted out with gusto, but clinically, with a clear, chillingly mundane purpose in mind—to preserve power. After all of the carnage, the status quo doesn’t change one iota by film’s end. The Mafia consolidates its control over Harlem, and almost every major character and several minor characters (both the implicated and the innocent—the film doesn’t distinguish) are cut down in the crossfire. Meanwhile, Shaft holes up in his Greenwich Village apartment, far across 110th Street.
Yesterday a new Barry Shear movie opened at neighborhood theaters. It is called "Across 110th Street," and it deals with—or in—violence between New York City blacks and whites. It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide.

People don't fare so well. When they aren't being killed, they are being tortured—either by the rest of the cast or by the director, who tends to observe life as if through a distorting lens or in extreme close-ups that reduce faces to nervous twitches, tense lips, and the like. Shear's style runs very close to genre parody. But about personal violence it is almost hysterically serious, and audiences for whom hatred is enough may turn "Across 110th Street" into a very popular movie indeed.

So much, and so much nonsense, has been written about the black exploitation film, that I hesitate to point out what may be the one perfect example of the type. But "Across 110th Street" (produced, written, and directed by whites) really does exploit its situations and its actors and even its violence, in a desperate rip-off of the latest news about the death of our cities.
Shadow and Act:
The film is seething with racial tension as well as solidarity.

Above all, it's entertaining, yet, dare I say, quite dark; we could even describe it as heist noir, with its darkness seemingly separating it from films often tagged (rightfully or not) with the blaxploitation label, mostly thanks to the performance by great character actor Paul Benjamin, whose quietly intense onscreen presence sometimes seemed as if he was in an altogether different movie than the somewhat stagy performances given by Kotto and Quinn (a minor quibble).
posted by MoonOrb (3 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Watched the trailer just to hear at least a bit of Bobby Womack's theme song. Surprised that it wasn't included. The trailer is rather dry without it, I think.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:41 PM on April 10, 2016

I've seen this film a few times, but remember little about it except that, as usual, I liked Anotnio Fargas in it, it seemed unusually violent, and the theme song is terrific.
posted by maxsparber at 7:53 AM on April 11, 2016

The comparison to In the Heat of the Night is a pretty obvious one, but I found the dynamic still quite effective: Pope wasn't the fish out of water that Tibbs was, but that also raised the stakes for him--this was his city, his turf, and he had to face down the expectations of the black community as well as endure the racism of the white, in ways that were slightly different than Tibbs's trials in ITHOTN.

Richard Ward played a hell of a bad guy as Doc Johnson, and the scene where Mattelli melts down and loses his shit when confronting Johnson and Pope holds everything together is not only the pivotal scene in the film but also an interesting parallel to Tibbs's confrontation with plantation owner Endicott.

110th, to me, was darker than ITHOTN, not because of the violence or Mattelli's murder (which seemed to me to be almost tacked on at the end and the movie really could have done without; I would have rather have him turn in his badge and retire with the realization that the force now belonged to younger cops like Pope), but because of Pope's decision to accept Johnson's help in order to capture Jim Harris. Tibbs never would have done that, making both characters interesting to me in different ways.

Jackie Brown, by the way, contains references to this film (theme song), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (character named Jackie Brown), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (characters watching it on TV), all recently featured on FanFare.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:20 PM on April 11, 2016

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