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Across 110th Street

by Glenn Erickson May 28, 2022

Gritty inner city crime pix don’t get any rougher than this — I witnessed the walk-outs personally. Barry Shear and a crack crew filmed in Harlem for this downbeat crime pic that could be called ‘Every Thief For Himself.’ Paul Benjamin just wants to score some mob money and leave the mean streets behind — but a single slipup brings the worst of the Mafia and the black mob down on his neck. It’s neither a ‘stick it to whitey’ saga nor a plea for justice: it’s story 8 million and 1 in The Naked City. Stars Anthony Quinn, Anthony Franciosa and Yaphet Kotto provide more acting fireworks, with solid assistance from Gloria Henry, Antonio Fargas and Marlene Warfield.

Across 110th Street
Region-Free Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 120
1972 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date April 27, 2022 / Available from / AUD 34.95
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Franciosa, Paul Benjamin, Ed Bernard, Antonio Fargas, Richard Ward, Norma Donaldson, Gloria Hendry, Frank Macetta, Marlene Warfield, Burt Young.
Cinematography: Jack Priestley
Art Director: Perry Watkins
Film Editors: Byron ‘Buzz’ Brandt, Carl Pingitore
Original Music: J.J. Johnson
‘Across 110th Street’ composed by Bobby Womack and J..J. Johnson, performed by Bobby Womack and Peace
Additional songs composed and performed by Bobby Womack
Screenplay by Luther Davis from the novel Across 110th by Wally Ferris
Executive Producers Anthony Quinn, Barry Shear
Produced by Fouad Said, Ralph B. Serpe
Directed by
Barry Shear

This reviewer witnessed personally some of the impact of what became known as ‘blaxploitation’ cinema, but in a roundabout way. After the ratings system came in, our local theaters in San Bernardino skipped a lot of rougher films, but the theater on our Air Force base showed everything from the major studios. That included titles like Shaft and Cotton Comes to Harlem, along with comedies like Watermelon Man. As I was one of the few white people in an auditorium of black airmen I got to see how welcome were movies starring black actors. The title tune for Shaft all but brought the house down, and the vulgar comedy and stick-it-to-the-man jokes of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones were indeed liberating.

Back at UCLA most of the blaxploition cycle slipped by; I wasn’t interested in stories glorifying pimps and drug pushers. But I was impressed by a non- blaxploitation crime picture that had a killer soundtrack and was in no way a comedy. Across 110th Street is a crime tragedy about desperation in Harlem, with characters as doomed as the rebels in John Ford’s The Informer. Harlem vice is sewn up by several ruthless criminal enterprises, a description that also applies to some of the police force. Every effort to break out leads to a brutal dead end. Crime not only doesn’t pay, it’s a one-way ticket to a horrible fate. As quoted by Viavision from Variety:

“Across 110th Street is not for the squeamish. From the beginning, it is a virtual blood bath.”

 

Back in 1972 Across 110th Street was mostly known as a picture so unpleasant that it encouraged walkouts. It’s now better known for its great soundtrack score credited to J. J. Johnson, and the Quentin Tarantino- friendly title tune compossed by Johnson and Bobby Womack. On Blu-ray the film shapes up well, with a credible story, good performances and evocative location filming in Harlem.

The screenplay by Luther Davis (Black Hand, Lady in a Cage) makes no reference to larger issues of the time, like Vietnam. Four years earlier director Jules Dassin put together a literal ‘ghetto’ revision of The Informer called Uptight. Max Julien, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Julien Mayfield, Ruby Dee & Raymond St. Jacques played urban radicals trying to foment a revolution. 110th Street drops the politics in favor of straight-up gangland mayhem.

We witness a grim twenty hours for some exhausted, desperate people. A trio of black gunslingers robs a numbers counting room in Harlem, where the minions of black boss Doc Johnson (Richard Ward) are handing over $300,000 in cash over to the accountants of white Mafia kingpin Don Gennaro (Frank Macetta). A machine gun goes off, leaving three Harlemites, two Italians and two cops dead. To let Harlem know who’s the boss, Don Gennaro orders his young associate Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) to find the killers and wipe them out as gruesomely as possible. Doc Johnson ignores D’Salvio’s threats but lends his ruthless main lieutenant Shevvy (Gilbert Lewis) to the effort to locate the thieves.

The police are two steps behind in this murderous manhunt. Aging, on-the-take Capt. Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) is told that he must yield leadership in the investigation to the young Lt. William Aliceworth Pope (Yaphet Kotto), an ambitious detective angry that none of the white cops respect him. Meanwhile, the three thieves are still at large. The getaway driver Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas) goes on a bender at a local brothel, foolishly advertising his new cash windfall. Soulful ex-con Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) realizes that it’s time to run, and tips off the machine gun-toting Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin) and Jim’s girl Gloria Roberts (Norma Donaldson) that the Mafia now knows who they are. Each has an escape plan… but both the cops and the hoods are closing in fast.

 

Across 110th Street shares a lot of black talent with the next year’s Bond film Live and Let Die. Its main market was the black audience, with Anthonys Quinn and Franciosa on hand to encourage crossover viewers. Director Barry Shear was mainly known for A.I.P.’s breakout hit Wild in the Streets yet was not part of any ‘youth’ movement; he’d been working in TV from the early 1950s and had been producting TV since 1960. Shear doesn’t try to soften the script’s hard edges. The nasty story is concerned with little more than the violence and pain meted out by the mob to counter an embarrassing crime. The Mafia boss describes Central Park as ‘a moat between us and the niggers.’ His craven yes-man D’Salvio is a sadist eager to impress.

The script deftly sketches the pandemonium in the precinct hall, with Mattelli dispensing favors right and left among a mob of black arrestees. New detective Pope is outraged that Captain Mattelli routinely bludgeons suspects as a matter of expedience. The film presents bloody beatings as a standard part of the process.

 

We also get an eyeful of Antonio Fargas’s outrageously flamboyant Henry hiring several prostitutes with his newfound loot. He then accompanies them to the brothel’s bar wearing only a purple silk sheet, a choice he soon regrets. Henry’s brief fling is the only fun anyone has in this straight violence and revenge story. One victim of Mafia torture has his arm broken before being hung by his feet from twenty floors up. Another luckless thief dies screaming in an ambulance; it looks as if his face has been cut apart and his eyes gouged out. Later on we learn that the man was castrated and crucified alive. All that mutilation at least happens off-screen, so the filmmakers did see a need to take some mercy on the audience.

 

The most sympathetic crook is played by Paul Benjamin, of Midnight Cowboy, Escape from Alcatraz and Do the Right Thing. Tough customer Jim Harris is the thief we invest our hopes in — he has a loyal woman at his side and a halfway clear idea of starting a better life somewhere else. Harris puts up a good fight with his machine gun, decimating his tormentors and giving the audience the action finale they came for.

Movies of this kind really need action finales, just to let loose all the tension that’s been built up. Both ghetto-based thrillers Uptight and Report to the Commissioner fail in this way; it’s difficult to remember exactly how they end. Across 110th Street finishes with the no holds-barred action finale that Machine Gun McCain needed.

Anthony Franciosa is disturbingly convincing as the passed-over Mafioso who ups the sadism quotient to impress the boss at the next level, his father-in-law.  D’Salvio hugs babies but gets his kicks making broken men grovel in pain. Gang etiquette requres that D’Salvio not be afraid to verbally abuse a black chieftain, even when he’s in Harlem surrounded by black hoods. The Italians have to make a show of who’s boss, if only to hide their fear that the blacks will wipe them out of the drug trade entirely.

 

The great Yaphet Kotto comes off with more dignity even though his character’s conflict with Anthony Quinn is overly familiar stuff. Kotto plays his put-upon Lt. Pope low-key and subdued, making him seem all the more credible.

Anthony Quinn has an executive producer credit on the film. Quinn’s Captain Matelli also seems to know that his corrupt practices can’t go on forever. His fatigue looks genuine, but for a 55 year-old guy whose face looks even older, Quinn hustles up and down those fire escapes pretty well.

The film’s standout actors are all black, and all in top form. Antonio Vargas is fine as the crazy guy who blows everything and suffers the most for his foolishness — but he doesn’t rat out his friends. Richard Ward (Brubaker, Mandingo) is excellent as the gravel-voiced Doc Johnson, a leader with guts enough to laugh in D’Salvio’s face, give Captain Matelli the cold shoulder and even try to help Lt. Pope get his promotion. He runs rackets in numbers, dope and prostitution and yet is the only hood with anything resembling ethics. The three thieves come off as losers who should have had their plane tickets (and epilepsy medicine) ready before they picked up their guns.

 

We can tell that the filmmakers were impressed by actress Marlene Warfield, who plays a young widow too proud to cry in front of the cops. Ms. Warfield later won the plum role of the militant radical in Sidney Lumet’s Network, the woman whose Marxist rhetoric morphs into negotiation demands for ancillary rights to her new TV show.

The film’s strong suit is its realism — it appears to have been filmed entirely on location in Harlem, not an easy task to pull off in 1972 when large sections of Manhattan had become crime-ridden war zones. All that urban renewal, gentrification and cosmetic clean-up was still years in the future.

 


 

Viavision [Imprint]’s Region-Free Blu-ray of Across 110th Street is the very good HD encoding provided by MGM. The image has slightly muted colors and a gritty look, but hues are accurate. The darker scenes look realistic, not murky. As MGM’s HD scan comes from a source near the original negative it easily beats the appearance of original 1972 prints. The movie is now watchable. In fact, it has style.

Several of Bobby Womack’s catchy songs have real appeal, and the title tune is still a winner. The lyrics set up the film’s main conflict and air of hopelessness:

I was the third brother of five
Doing whatever I had to do to survive
I’m not saying what I did was alright
Tryna break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight

Viavision has done its due diligence with the extras. An hour-long documentary about Anthony Quinn contains interview selections with scores of his fellow actors and collaborators. Author Michael J. Koven (Blaxploitation Films) appears in a separate video to discuss the show, and begins by explaining why 110th Street shouldn’t be classified as a blaxploitation picture.

Scotland-based author Matthew Asprey Gear takes charge of the feature commentary, which is a casual listen yet fills us in on how the picture came together and how the film crew managed to work in the ‘challenging’ streets of Harlem. Deals with gangs and budget-straining bribes were required.

Gear also talks about the interesting production advances seen in the picture. Large movie companies always had to cart heavy, bulky studio equipment out into the streets, equipment that hadn’t been redesigned since the 1930s. Urban locations required a lot of security in places where anything not nailed down would immediately disappear.

Cameraman, entrepreneur (and 110th Street co-producer) Fouad Said became famous in the early 1970s for fabricating and marketing practical equipment for location work. His most publicized innovation were his ingenious ‘Cinemobile’ production trucks, studio equipment vehicles designed almost like fire engines, with self-contained power generators and easily-accessed and easily-secured equipment lockers.  The trucks were heavily promoted in the trades. Said had been in production with the I Spy TV show, and reunited its two stars for his neo-noir feature Hickey & Boggs, produced with his streamlined production system. Across 110th Street never seems cramped by filming on crowded streets and claustrophobic tenements.

 

In the winter of 1972-73 I worked as an Assistant Manager of National General’s Santa Monica Theater on Wilshire, down around 17th street. That theater had the worst bookings ever for bringing in audiences. Most of what we showed was unsuited for Santa Monica, where most of the trade were older white residents from the neighborhood. We got stuck with The Wrath of God (terrible), Billy Wilder’s Avanti (excellent but nobody came) and even a 3-D softcore porn movie called Prison Girls (dim and out of focus).

Among these no-customer hits was a double bill of United Artists’ Avanti! and Across 110th Street. The Jack Lemmon movie pulled in a small crowd and generated a lot of laughs. But the part of the audience that stayed for the crime picture walked out by the half-hour mark. Every time I poked my nose in the auditorium somebody was torturing somebody. The nearly colorless print had grain the size of golf balls. It was not a happy job. I never got to know the projectionist. He locked himself in the booth and drank all night, yet always made smooth changeovers.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



Across 110th Street
Region-Free Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Audio commentary by Matthew Asprey Gear
Anthony Quinn: An Original – 1990 documentary
Interview with author Mikel J. Koven
Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed:
May 25, 2022
(6721accr)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.