Monday, February 20, 2012

59. ACROSS 110th STREET (1972)

Finally catching up with this slow-cooking cult item taught me that I had been living with two serious misconceptions: first, that director Barry Shear never made a better movie than WILD IN THE STREETS (1968); and second, that when Quentin Tarantino used Bobby Womack's theme song from this blaxploitation picture under the main titles of JACKIE BROWN, he was simply paying homage to one of his favorite films from the era and genre Pam Grier had ruled like a queen. Turns out his reasons ran considerably deeper than that.

Nothing I'd ever heard about ACROSS 110th STREET prepared me for a film that cuts through race to say something true about the dreams we all live with and the goals we set for ourselves to make life bearable. All of its principal characters share something crucial in common with the principal characters of JACKIE BROWN: they can feel the dancefloor shrinking under their feet, they're getting older, and they realize that the time to make a grab for the brass ring had better be now, if they're ever going to do it. ACROSS 110th STREET is about three black working stiffs (Paul Benjamin, Ed Bernard, Antonio Fargas) who pose as cops to rip off $300,000 from an apartment where it's being counted before being turned over to the Mob boss running Harlem. They're all 40-something and impoverished, living in tenements with rats and roaches, where flushed toilets back up into their sinks, with their stoic women and their shared dreams; Benjamin's character is also saddled with epilepsy.

But as Jean Renoir wrote in THE RULES OF THE GAME, "The real hell of life is that everyone has their reasons," and it's equally important for Nick D'Salvio (an uncommonly vicious Anthony Franciosa), as a 45 year old lapdog to crime boss Don Gennaro (Frank Macetta) who's been allowed to take it easy for too long, to recover that money and thus live up to the old man's expectation that he can "take care of" this problem. Yet even his dreams are trumped by those of police captain Matelli (Anthony Quinn), who at age 55 feels the tightening noose of retirement and craves one last chance to either redeem himself for a career of corruption or to simultaneously punish and glorify himself with an apparent hero's death. And then there's Lt. Kotto (Yaphet Kotto), younger and more principled than the higher-ranking Matelli, who is placed in charge of the case because he's black and lives for the opportunity to advance in his job because of the man he is rather than for the color he is. As it happens, all of their dreams begin to unravel when the heist driver Jackson (Fargas) cannot resist celebrating his success by living his dream by flashing his newfound wealth around similarly disadvantaged friends and hookers who want a piece of the pie for themselves -- $100, a dream to them which is in fact just a remaining morsel of a $5,000 bounty nibbled down to almost nothing by the middle men spreading the word.

This theme of time-sensitivity becomes all the more meaningful when we appreciate that it was scripted by Luther Davis (himself 55 at the time, working from Wally Ferris' novel ACROSS 110th), and that it was directed by Barry Shear at the age of 49, when the milestone age of 50 must have been dangling in front of his own ability to dream like an admonition to slow down. Shear's directorial feat with this film becomes doubly meaningful when we realize that he died in 1979 at the age of 56, and that his seven remaining years were spent almost entirely toiling in the trenches of television; he would make only one more theatrical feature but it probably wasn't a happy experience for him, in that THE DEADLY TRACKERS required him to take the directorial seat away from a man he must have admired: Samuel Fuller. But with ACROSS 110th STREET, whether or not he ever knew it, Shear realized a dream he shared with countless others who never got as close: he made a legitimately great American movie.

Viewed on Netflix.


  1. TL: Great write-up, as always.
    But I have to give a big shout-out to Shear's "forgotten" film: The Todd Killings (recently given the DVD-on-request treatment by Warner Bros.). I think it's a fantastic film, and I'd love to hear your reaction.
    PS: My (exceeding long) review of The Todd Killings is here:

  2. I have yet to read a kind word about THE DEADLY TRACKERS, arguably the best faux Spaghetti Western ever made, the closest thing on film to those sleazy, violent western paperbacks of the '70s, and a platinum cast of actors: Rod Taylor as a psychotic bad guy, Al Lettieri as a good guy, Neville Brand and William Smith as Taylor's deranged flunkies, Richard Harris in full MacArthur's Park anguish mode, and the incomparable Isela Vega.

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  4. May I humbly suggest first of all that I had the same reaction...Never though much of Barry Shear even after WILD IN THE STREETS...but after seeing this I SURE DID. It's "blaxsploitation" label betrays a truly brutal and real early 70's view of race relations, a genuinely GREAT series of performances from ALL involved (who would think the late pretty boy Anthony Fransciosa would EVER be the unmitigated SADIST HE PLAYS HERE! DID Dario Argento remember seeing Fransciosa HERE for TENABRAE?
    Also not surprised at the bile in this screenplay as Luther Davis also wrote Walter Grauman's LADY IN A CAGE in 1964 which is similiarly depressing. After this Barry Shear should not have been toiling away in TV (much less the project he took over from SAM FULLER...i.e., THE DEADLY TRACKERS...which despite some worthwhile elements is a mess). Am rather shocked that you think as much of ACROSS 110th STREET as I do after having seen it numerous times.

    I also DIDN'T know anything about the AGES of the participants and how that figures into the making of the movie and it's entire spirit. I likewise think the film a dingily shot (JACK PRIESTLY, also shot THE BEAST WITHIN!) masterpiece of bile at AmeriKKa...AND BOBBY WOMACK'S THEME IS PRICELESS! AS IS J.J. JOHNSON's SCORE!

  5. Great review Tim - this has always been one of my favourite American films from the early-70s, the action, characters, soundtrack and grimy depiction of desperation and despair are all top-notch.