‘Across 110th Street’ Transcends Blaxploitation Genre Limitations

Given the year it was released and its soulful opening credits set to the backdrop of Bobby Womack’s smooth voice,  Across 110th Street should have simply slid itself into the rest of the blaxploitation genre.

It really was the perfect fit. Womack’s tune “Across 110th Street” expresses and conveys Harlem’s feeling and propels us into a story that on multiple levels pits blacks against whites. It’s colorful, wound-up characters are vivid and funny. It has soul, energy and passion.

But Barry Shear’s film (based on a novel by Wally Ferris) does much more than keep itself within the limitations the sometimes silly blaxploitation genre provides. By presenting a valid exchange of racial turmoil and a tense New York City feud between Italians and blacks, this is an urban crime drama that packs a powerful, legitimate punch.

Anthony Quinn plays aging police Capt. Frank  Mattelli. Yaphet Kotto does his best Mr. Tibbs as Lt. Pope. Mattelli, being older, a bit racist and Italian-American, has significant trouble adjusting to working on a case with the younger and African-American Pope. To make things even more difficult, the case they’re handling is the amateur robbery of a big crime syndicate’s payday where gangsters and police officers both black and white were murdered.

The film becomes a race in a different meaning of the word as well. Mattelli and Pope struggle to keep calm heads, clashing at almost every instance. Their goal is to beat mad man Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), a Mafia lieutenant, to the suspects. D’Salvio’s mafia “owns” Harlem, but it isn’t without the assistance of Harlem’s top crime dogs, Doc Johnson (Richard Ward) and his number one man Shevvy (Gilbert Lewis), that he is able to worm his way through the seedy Harlem underground.

Even though Quinn and Kotto receive top billing and perform well, they are overshadowed by the gritty and sometimes funny performances of Ward, Lewis and Antonio Fargas, who plays getaway driver Henry Jackson. Each scene the scary and frightening Doc Johnson and Shevvy were in stole things for me. They’re mean, vicious characters and the performances reflect such. Below I’ve posted a video if Doc’s intimidating nature, complete with his growling voice and maniacal laughter. Fargas, who would go on to play Huggy Bear in the Starsky and Hutch television show, provides that tint of comedic relief a film as dark as this one needs.

And when I say dark, I mean it. The film takes place over the course of own night as the speedy investigation, by both the police and the Mafia, is fueled by a fire of desire to be the first ones to reach the three criminals who robbed and murdered earlier in the day. With that in mind, most of the scenes are dark by nature, especially considering the number of on-location scenes shot in Harlem, which help add even more gritty realism to the production.

The interiors and exteriors add this irreplaceable perspective on Harlem in the early 70’s, something that absolutely cannot be doubled or fabricated in any other way. The dingy meeting rooms, bars draped in red lighting, shady whorehouses and poorly lit parking garages all bring New York City to life similar to the way Taxi Driver would four years later.

The standout performance is by Paul Benjamin, who plays Jim Harris, one of the three criminals on the run and probably the most “important” of the trio. Harris has epilepsy, and Benjamin plays the performance of a man with nowhere left to run in such a painstaking fashion. The finale is a sight to behold.

Shear’s film is able to transcend blaxploitation with a sensitive but nasty approach to racial turmoil. It isn’t too heavy handed or forced on the viewers, but it also represents a real problem that must have been alive and well in the police stations and city streets of 1970’s. In one pivotal scene of anguish, Pope angrily tells Mattelli that he might as well go back 30 years (to the 1940’s!) with the way he’s behaving towards him. Its these moments of tension between police officers and between police officers and gangsters that fuel a rather strong societal message.

Across 110th Street is one of the finer early 1970’s urban crime dramas I’ve ever seen. It’s really well filmed and executed, with a unique narrative that flies by as we watch the men hurry to track down leads and suspects in a hope to resolve things. Its powerful message and dark story isn’t overshadowed by any kind of silly blaxpolitation themes, which makes Across 110th Street a lasting entry among gritty 1970’s American cinema.

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