Across 110th Street ★★★★

A mainstream Blaxploitation picture, Across 110th Street was reviled by critics at the time for its graphic violence and bleak, uncompromising stance. Viewed today, it's a minor masterpiece of '70s pulp cinema; not only satisfying the expectations of the crime genre, but providing salient, searing social commentary too.

It's perhaps easy to see why some contemporary critics baulked at Across 110th Street. Film is often viewed by some as a means of escapism, whereas Barry Shear's film is firmly rooted in the sobering, unflinching reality of the worst aspects of American society, principally the racial divide. Set in New York, the titular address serves as an intersection between Harlem and Central Park - a geographical and social division based on race and class. By 1972, that division was like an open wound. New York's economy was bust and Harlem suffered the worst of such an economic downturn. Middle class residents who could afford to relocate did so, leaving the neighbourhood empty and derelict. Some 24% of the population in Harlem lived on welfare, whilst an estimated 60% of its economy came from the illegal numbers racket of organised crime. Drugs, an escape from the harsh reality of life, were rife. Harlem was a place of little opportunity for its majority black population and, when racial tensions, ran deep this powder keg environment exploded. Riots hit the city in 1964 when an off-duty white police officer murdered a black teenager. Just three years later, in the stifling hot summer of 1967, the US endured major rioting from black communities understandably angry at police brutality and rising poverty and naturally, Harlem again exploded. A year later, in grief-stricken retaliation for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Harlem's business and storefronts were ablaze. It is this reality that Across 110th Street depicts, most memorably in its even handed portrayal of the moral grey areas its cast of characters occupy.

This isn't your standard cops (good) and robbers (bad) tale, instead it is a character study that helps to reflect the corruption and problems endemic in society. Jim Harris (a sympathetic performance from Paul Benjamin), the murdering crook the police and mob are seeking, memorably and poignantly relates to his girlfriend how, as a black 40 something man with no formal education, a criminal record and a disability, he sees no option other than crime to survive. Compare this admission to the reveal that Anthony Quinn's thirty-three-year police veteran, Capt. Martelli, routinely takes bribes from Harlem's black godfather Doc Johnson (gravel-voiced Richard Ward) in order to supplement the meagre income the city pays him for his service.

The central, uneasy alliance between the dinosaur Martelli and Yaphet Kotto's liberal, disciplined Lt. Pope is one that has often been compared to the relationship between Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In The Heat of the Night. Whilst the 1967 is arguably a much better film, I feel the dynamic here is more interesting. For a start it doesn't play on the fish out of water aspect that that film and its countless imitators in the genre depicted. Here, Pope and Martelli operate the same streets, but their viewpoints are wildly different. Pope is angered by Martelli's casual racism and brutal interrogation methods, arguing that such antics "went out with prohibition". It's a telling comment, as Martelli first trod the beat when prohibition was a recent memory. Quinn's performance is imbued with the jaded, jaundiced eye of a man who has sifted through the sewers for thirty-odd years. He's seen many changes but to him it is, almost literally, the same shit but a different day. His 'crime' isn't necessarily taking bribes, it's the simple fact that in all his long service he's done nothing to improve the situation - a fact he's perhaps slowly coming to realise now at the age of fifty-five and with retirement banging on the door. When he angrily launches himself at Doc Johnson, the mobster accurately comments that he is a man longing to die; not simply because he can't bear the prospect of retirement but perhaps for some retribution for his role in propping up a corrupt, broken system.

As Pope, Yaphet Kotto is the opposite of Martelli, a college educated police officer who abhors the older cop's fist-flying, but that doesn't mean that he is above using his own physical presence to intimidate suspects or indeed anyone who attempts to block his path. From Harlem himself, he represents upward mobility and a new breed of police officer for whom class and race may not necessarily be a hindrance to getting on, though both he and the film understand that equality is not around the corner. What's interesting is how he interacts with the black community, it's the epitome of that old phrase about black police officers; 'too black for the police, too blue for the brothers'. Nevertheless there's a quiet, devastating determination in Kotto's performance to simply do the right thing that means such concerns are merely minor irritants for him.

The only character who offers no sympathy or redeeming features is Anthony Franciosa's racist charmless mobster Nick D'Salvio, and even then his character is far more multi-faceted and interesting than many other films would depict. D'Salvio, we learn, married into the mob family, a situation which turned his fortunes from mob lackey to gangster number one. With such power comes great expectations and D'Salvio knows deep down that he cannot fulfill them. It is this ineptness and self doubt that leads him to perform in the most disgusting, violent manner, perhaps because he believes that is what is expected of him. It's a great stomach churning, repulsive performance of a little, repugnant man who thinks he is a big man with wit and charm, and it's understandable that audiences feel no empathy for his fate.

Speaking of fates, anyone who has purchased the MGM DVD release here in the UK who hasn't seen the film before will receive an immediate spoiler thanks to the rear of the DVD showing a still image from the final scene of the movie!

Across 110th Street is a gritty, sweaty expose of '70s American society and a solid marriage between the mainstream and the Blaxploitation film movement. It boasts some strong performances, specifically from Quinn and Kotto whose chalk and cheese partnership has been replicated through the years ever since. You can even see traces of it in the BBC series Life on Mars. And it goes without saying of course that it has a superb soundtrack from Bobby Womack.

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