Here’s something I never expected to see: I ran to the blaxploitation attraction Willie Dynamite because I like actress Diana Sands, and it’s her last picture in a too-short career. But the main character on view, a gaudy fur-wearing pimp, is played by none other than Roscoe Orman, well known to a couple of generations of kids as none other than ‘Gordon’ in the long-running TV show Sesame Street. It’s like watching MisterRogers play Hannibal Lecter!
1974 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date January 8, 2019 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: Roscoe Orman, Diana Sands, Thalmus Rasulala, Joyce Walker, Roger Robinson, George Murdock, Albert Hall, Norma Donaldson, Juanita Brown, Royce Wallace, Tol Avery, Robert DoQui, Slim Gaillard.
Cinematography: Frank Stanley
Film Editor: Aaron Stell
Original Music: J.J. Johnson
Written by Ron Cutler & Joe Keyes Jr.
Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown
Directed by Gilbert Moses
Blaxploitation cinema of the early 1970s is a strange country to this reviewer. I witnessed some of the excitement of the early pictures Shaft and Cotton Comes to Harlem because I saw them new in a theater on an Air Force Base. The crowd of airmen in need of entertainment loved the picture’s ‘get Whitey’ humor, dug the funky soundtracks, and in general went nuts over the ‘R’-rated ability to mix nudity with broad sex jokes. At the time it felt like good, liberating fun. There was of course a corresponding vein of ‘wholesome’ movies with positive values. I wasn’t particularly moved by the sentimentality of Sounder, but Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree impressed me greatly.
As a very white, very sheltered, unconnected and impoverished film student, I didn’t have much interest in the influx of action movies about pimps and drug pushers, with posters showing black heroes holding enormous guns. I do remember being present one night at the Fox Venice Theater, when a near- riot broke out between black and Latin gangs attending a screening of, I believe, The Mack.
1974’s Willie Dynamite is in some ways typical of blaxploitation released by a big studio. Whereas genuine black-produced racial blowback pictures like Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song were distributed with great trepidation, a great many popular examples were predominantly white-produced. 1974’s Willie Dynamite is a sidebar detour into ‘alternate revenue streams’ by the prolific, successful Zanuck/Brown producing team, who were at the time going great guns with big winners like The Sting, and soon, Spielberg’s game-changer Jaws. Willie Dynamite is predictably not as rough or as proudly insolent as the output of Melvin Van Peebles, and its pedigree as a mainstream Universal production and release doesn’t put it high on the list of influential blacksploitationers. But it is rather unique: one expects another Superfly- like tale glamorizing a black crime figure, and Dynamite hands us a fairly respectable moral tale.
Willie Dynamite (Roscoe Orman) is the coolest, gaudiest pimp in Manhattan. His string of seven glamorous call girls work the city’s conventions, and the big bucks they bring back keep Willie in outrageous fur fashions, and allow him to cruise the city in a customized Cadillac pimpmobile that screams out his status as an upwardly mobile advertisement for sex. Willie is hard on his girls, especially Honey (Norma Donaldson), who serves as his minder for the harem, and his new girl Pashen (Joyce Walker), a delicate looker who isn’t turning tricks as fast as he’d prefer. The story basically shows the destruction of Willie’s little empire of vice. His fellow pimps meet to join together for mutual security, with the equally succesful Bell (Roger Robinson) as the leader. Willie opts out, not realizing that his peers will turn against him.
Soon his girls are being regularly busted and his car is being towed every time he turns his back on it. Also aggravating Willie is Cora (Diana Sands) an ex- junkie turned unofficial social worker. Cora tries to help Pashen get free from The Life with little success. But the determined Cora gives her assistant D.A. boyfriend Robert Daniels (Thalmus Rasulala) some aid by breaking into Willie’s pad and swiping the numbers of his many bank accounts. His girls are rousted so often that he can’t make bail. His money is tied up by the IRS and Bell’s hoods are trying to run him down. Willie is also hounded by the detective team of Celli and Pointer (George Murdock & Albert Hall), who harass him almost for sport. Honey and Pashen are viciously attacked, and Willie’s Mom suffers a heart attack when she realizes that he’s not the music promoter he claims to be.
Willie Dynamite is not at all typical of blaxploitation pictures. Zanuck & Brown chose the award- winning Broadway director Gilbert Moses to direct rather than a white director like Jack Hill or Larry Cohen. Moses takes the film in some unexpected directions. Instead of the gritty, grainy docu-noir look of the average black-themed crime film (case in point, Across 110th Street), Dynamite has a high-key standard look. Many exteriors are filmed in New York but the bulk of the shooting seems to have been done in Los Angeles — many street scenes look like a studio backlot. Universal probably liked that but they may not have liked the director’s theatrical approach to dialogue scenes. The script performs like a stage play, its exaggerated jive talk jargon spoken almost in Shakesperian cadence. The language never gets too rough, the dialogue is artificially arch and pointed, and the delivery is definitely off-Broadway. Nobody slurs words or speaks at the same time. It’s not bad, exactly, but it feels heavily stylized, purposely not natural.
The actors are up to the challenge, inflating the dramatics of every encounter. The performances of supporting troublemakers Robert DoQui and Roger Robinson go over the top, but never inappropriately. The great Diana Sands (A Raisin in the Sun, The Landlord) puts great finesse on her social worker character, giving us a strong center of sympathy. It’s top-level acting in a genre where pros often coast. Thalmus Rasulala’s role is not that rewarding, but Albert Hall (Apocalypse Now) gives spirit and believability to the detective chasing Willie.
Roscoe Orman appears to have been a classically trained actor playing down to the role of a slick, slimy pimp. Orman also played the warm, generous Gordon character on Sesame Street for decades, a fact I didn’t discover until after my first viewing. Even before that I didn’t think Orman was quite nasty enough to completely convince as the utterly two-faced Willie. Writers Ron Cutler and Joe Keyes Jr. give Willie some pretty good dialogue, especially when he gloats about how smart he is. But no matter what they do, they can’t make Willie’s return home, pretending to be a solid citizen, work. He suddenly seems far too nice to slip back into his underworld persona — we get the feeling that Orman took the job with the proviso that Willie Dynamite wouldn’t be portrayed as an admirable role model.
Gilbert Moses’ direction is also pat and precise, so much so that some reviewers think that Dynamite is some kind of unfunny sendup of Blaxploitation pictures. I think it’s a straight attempt at an anti-Blaxploitation effect. Although there is no heavy moralizing, Willie puts up with a flood of verbal flak all through the picture, all disapproving of his parasitic, ruthless and destructive lifestyle. At regular intervals Moses stages a ‘walk’ in which Willie’s girls ascend an elevator or draw looks of astonishment in hotel lobbies, convention corridors, etc., backed by the theme song ‘Willie D’ sung by Martha Reeves. The song stresses the all-powerful money machine Willie, but the events of the story systematically demolish his kingdom and rob him of his sexy entourage.
There’s very little gunplay but some good moments of rough violence, a throat-slitting (on- screen) and a face-slashing (off-screen). Moses or his action unit stages an excellent foot chase through a construction area, and a good car chase. The producer must have fainted when the stunt driver puts the Cadillac into a skid, and narrowly misses a nasty sideswipe with truck that would have wiped it out. If they were sane, they saved that scene for last. Unable to access his cash, Willie goes to his secret hideout to recover a fortune in heroin (or cocaine?).
Less controlled, or purposely awkward, are the film’s costumes. The production design is okay but the costumes for Willie are way over the top. It’s in keeping with the hyped theatrical look, but his pimp outfits, with huge exaggerated fur coats and hats, seem extremely impractical anyplace but a dark street or under neon lights. In broad daylight he looks like a clown. Roscoe Orman wears the full-length velour jumpsuits as well as anyone but it’s distracting, almost as exaggerated as the outfits worn by Antonio Fargas in the comedy I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.
Willie’s comeuppance becomes complete at the finale, which takes a few more strange turns. He must face up to his sins, a moralistic finish that avoids lectures or messages but still pushes the movie in the direction of a polemic. Until the last act Dynamite repeats the story arc of the classic noir The Gangster, in which the fiefdom of an established, ‘respected’ hoodlum is taken from him in just a few days. But instead of ending in the gutter, Willie ceases being such a badass miscreant. Diana Sands’ Cora, after ninety minutes trying to put Willie behind bars or in his grave, suddenly softens to him so much, we think for a minute they might end up in bed together. With his pad destroyed, his harem murdered or dispersed and his car towed away for one last time, Willie is ‘freed’ from his need to be a criminal wise guy. A strange ending indeed.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Willie Dynamite is a fine presentation of this odd career cul-de-sac for the accomplished stage director Gilbert Moses. The show is in great shape and NBC Universal’s transfer can’t be faulted. Arrow’s package producer Anthony Nield gives the picture a class presentation. The music score by J.J.Johnson is clean, as are the film’s three original songs.
A twenty-page pamphlet illustrated with color photos bears an ambitious essay by Cullen Gallagher. He does a bit of over analysis of the film’s symbolism and graphic sense, using ‘found signs’ to comment on the story. Showing Willie’s girls on parade below a garage ad stating ‘Open Day and Night’ works well, but I doubt the opening image of the Cadillac pimpmobile cruising past a marquee with the word ‘pornography’ was something really controlled by the director. Gallagher pegs the screenplay’s rather on-the-nose expose of the ugly edges of pimped prostitution: Willie throws a men’s skin magazine at his girls and tells them to use it to play to the customers’ fantasies. The film is certainly honest about corruption. One of Willie’s pros is shown being hustled into a room by a pair of horny cops. ‘Protection’ apparently comes with humiliating free samples.
On the disc itself is the movie’s artless original trailer, and a full-length audio commentary by Sergio Mims, a Chicago based critic, writer and film festival organizer. Mims gives us a good tour of the story behind Dynamite, perhaps starting too generally with the state of studio fortunes in the early ’70s but coming on strong when placing the show in its immediate commercial context. Mims’s bio material on the actors is not bad — he also respects the career of Ms. Sands. Unlike commentators that think we want them to tout the film on view (we already bought it, after all), Mims fesses up that he doesn’t think Dynamite is some kind of classic — I think he gravitates toward the rougher, more brutally honest extremes of black cinema. But he certainly respects the film, and helps us to understand a lot of what we’re seeing.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Trailer, illustrated pamphlet with essay by Cullen Gallagher, audio commentary by Sergio Mims.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 5, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson