Harlem is the Capital of Every Ghetto Town
By all rights, Across 110th Street, a 1972 crime melodrama set in Harlem (hence the title) and directed by television journeyman Barry Shear (whose only other cinematic claim to fame is Wild in the Streets (1968), the barely credible exploitation pic), should have fallen through the cracks of film history. Well received by critics of the time, Across 110th Street was also branded as an unremittingly violent entry in the cycle of Hollywood-produced black action pictures. But it has endured, despite attempts by critics and friends alike to reduce its achievement by categorizing it as just another blaxploitation flick, just more hell up in Harlem.
Like its cinematic compatriots, Shaft (1971), Trouble Man (1972), and Car Wash (1976), Across 110th Street owes much of its notoriety to a memorable theme song. Written by Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson and performed by Womack, “Across 110th Street” is a majestic soul-funk classic in its radio incarnation—perhaps appropriately, the film itself presents a more downbeat version over its opening credits—and one of the best of that era’s numerous musical chronicles of inner-city pain. (Womack’s single has since received further exposure from its somewhat incongruous use in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 L.A. noir, Jackie Brown.)
Across 110th Street has also profited, in a way, from the deceptive “blaxploitation” tag affixed to it, owing to the continued interest in the characteristic works of that early ‘70s trend. It accordingly remains an essential component in theatrical retrospectives of blaxploitation pictures, and its profile should further increase as one in MGM’s “Soul Cinema” series of DVD reissues; it’s part of a package of current releases that includes Five on the Black Hand Side, Hell Up In Harlem (both 1973), Bucktown, and Cornbread, Earl, and Me (both 1975). Unable to market 110th on the basis of a marquee black name above the title (ubiquitous as Yaphet Kotto was during the blaxploitation era, he never flexed the star power of a Jim Brown or a Pam Grier), MGM instead plays up the Get Whitey angle (the DVD case incoherently bills 110th as “a jacked-up, smacked-down thrill-ride through the hell-raisin’ hoods of Harlem!”), which is both misleading and a disservice to the film’s accomplishment. As is true of other entries in the series, MGM provides little in the way of bonus features—just the original preview, about which the most revealing thing is the revelation that trailers revealed too much of a movie’s plot even back then. Though only a couple of entries in the blaxploitation cycle rise to 110th‘s level of achievement many of these much maligned movies deserve the kind of contextualization that interviews and audio commentaries can provide.(When, MGM, can we expect to see 1973’s outlandish and exhilarating revolutionist fantasy The Spook Who Sat By the Door?)
Across 110th Street takes its subject very seriously; its DVD distributor hasn’t honored that seriousness, but a few perceptive critics have. I suspect that many people who weren’t alive in 1972 or were too young to take note of the contemporary cinema slate first encountered Across 110th Street, as I did, through Greil Marcus’s reverent assessment in his landmark 1975 book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. Marcus, wielding Shear’s film as a club against contemporaneous smashes like Super Fly (1972), named it the cinematic equivalent of the very best black popular music of the day and devoted three pages to summarizing its plot (not always accurately; a few scenes are embellished, albeit creatively) and analyzing its virtues. Foremost among those virtues is Shear’s use of bloodshed for something other than titillation: “The violence was so ugly it exploded the violence of the genre,” writes Marcus. “It wasn’t gratuitous, but it wasn’t ‘poetic’ either.”
Marcus is on the mark in highlighting the strange flatness of the violence that permeates Across 110th Street, though he overstates the amount of gore in it. 110th is certainly not, as Marcus would later claim in the film journal Take One, “the most violent commercial movie of the decade”; neither is it the most grievous offender of the blaxploitation school. There’s more and more sensationalistic brutality in shoot-‘n’-knife-em-ups like American International’s Foxy Brown and the indefensible Truck Turner (both 1974). But Marcus’s assertion is still, in a way, justifiable: viewers likely remember Across 110th Street as a bloodbath because nearly every barbarous act yields equally ferocious consequences. (It’s also possible that the blood sticks in the mind because of its sickly orange color. The crispness of the DVD transfer further highlights the garishness of this particular shade of orange—the blood shade of choice for the decade’s toughest New York melodramas, like Taxi Driver (1976).)
Indeed, the film’s plot is built out of the accumulation of violent repercussions and payback. As the title song fades on the soundtrack, a small group of Mafia bagmen—plus some black flunkies and a couple of white cops on the payroll—matter-of-factly tally the week’s bounty in an anonymous Harlem tenement. (It’s the first of many spectacularly grim environments; Shear chose to film on real-life Harlem locations, using a newly perfected portable camera, and the capacity to shoot in close quarters contributes mightily to the film’s aesthetic of claustrophobia.) Two black crooks in police uniforms bust through the door; within two minutes, the impostors flee with hundreds of thousands in dirty money and the bean-counters lie pulverized by a hail of bullets. The gears of Mob justice begin to crank in the very next scene: at a family gathering in a cramped Central Park apartment overlooking the “no man’s land” beyond 110th Street, Mafia errand boy Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) receives his assignment—retrieve the money and send a message.
From this point on, the film grinds relentlessly, inexorably toward the ignoble deaths of the three fugitives—Jim (Paul Benjamin), Joe (Ed Bernard), and Henry (Antonio Fargas, who predictably steals every scene he’s in). Echoing Fritz Lang’s underworld masterpiece M (1931), Across 110th Street deftly interweaves the tragic actions of corrupt cops, vicious gangsters, and the criminals hunted by both. Police captain and nominal hero Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) spends much of the picture resisting two unplanned retirements; his superiors on the force cripple his authority by assigning him to work under no-nonsense Lieutenant Pope (Kotto), while the Harlem thugs—headed by the vocally ravaged Doc Johnson (Richard Ward)—who have long paid for Frank’s services, hint that they’re no longer needed. Like D’Salvio, who is driven to psychopathic rage at the slightest provocation, and like the fugitives themselves, Frank speeds through the picture in a state of crazy desperation, flailing savagely at the world while barely a step ahead of his own obsolescence.
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, nigger!” 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.