Across 110th Street (1972) 3.93/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 78.2
Genre: Crime
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Barry Shear
Stars: Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Franciosa

Ignored crime classic unfairly done out of its due recognition by being pigeonholed as simply a “blaxploitation movie”. Across 110th Street has all the trappings of a blaxploitation film: the coolness, the daring, and the shock factor but it’s also a perfectly tempered crime drama framed around character and tightly interwoven plot. When three hoods rip off the Mafia in Harlem, the mob need to make an example of them so that they maintain their stranglehold on the borough and stop the local mobsters sensing weakness and moving in on them. At the same time, the police place a young black lieutenant in charge of the case and put the tough, seasoned, and cynical Captain Matelli’s nose out of joint by telling him to follow the younger man’s orders.

To say the story is textured is to seriously understate the case. The three men who stage the heist are each sharply defined with their own personalities. Paul Benjamin is the intelligent mastermind who suffers from epilepsy and has taken all he can take from a life of poverty while the always lively Antonio Fargas is the self-styled player who is too loud to lie low. The mob enforcer sent to hunt them down is drawn around a fantastic conceit and he is played electrically by Anthony Franciosa. Plagued by self doubt and insecurity which is linked with a recent professional failure, he’s given one last chance to prove his worth because he happens to be the son-in-law of the don. This gives him a massive point to prove and he doesn’t hold back one bit when it comes to dealing with the Harlem mobsters who use every opportunity to challenge his fragile moxy. The more powerfully constructed subplot is undoubtedly Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn’s combustible partnership as the young lieutenant and older captain. It’s a mature and sensitive thread to the story which sees Quinn turn in one of his finest and most touching performances. As the straight shooting cop with no tolerance for brutality or corruption, Kotto still manages to give his man real edge which allows the audience to believe all the more that he can swim these shark infested waters.

As with most films in the exploitation bracket, Across 110th Street makes the most of its license to shock but it’s never in a hurry to get to the violence. Furthermore, in an impressive act of discipline and understanding, director Barry Shear obscures the audience’s direct view of the violence through one potent device or another and with no shortage of style either. This is a slick movie that has a distinct personality and visual feel. Thanks to a wealth of location shots and Jack Priestly’s tough cinematography, the mean streets are given that same grainy texture that defined The French Connection. The interiors are lit in all the seductively soft lighting we’ve come to associate with 70’s cinema but if anything, the cacophony of accents, background music, and the original score of J.J. Johnson do more to capture the verve of that era.

What makes the movie so comprehensively rewarding is its balance between hard core action and rich person centred drama. There are no less than four blistering action sequences which all vary greatly in construction and momentum. From the tense build up to and execution of the initial heist, the bone-chilling pre-amble to what promises to be a nasty torture episode, to the two separate chase sequences in the film’s final act, this movie just plain rumbles. However, thanks to Luther Davis’ wise screenplay, the intelligence of the actors, and Shear’s sensibilities, there’s more than a few threads of human emotion lining the fabric of the movie. Shear is more than content to let his lens rest in front of that drama at key points in the film and even with the more extreme characters of Fargas and even Franciosa, he finds an essential sentimentality. The best example of this comes in a touching scene between the former’s estranged wife and Kotto and Quinn’s detectives when they witness the begrudging affection she still holds for him. It’s a subtly affecting scene which works entirely on a subtextual level but it’s as powerful as any Oscar winning drama. That it comes in the middle of a blaxploitation movie means we have either mis-categorised this film or underestimated that genre as a whole.

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