Across 110th Street (1972): You’ve Got to Be Strong

When I hear the song “Across 110th Street” by the immortal Bobby Womack, the first thoughts that come to my mind are the final scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown where Pam Grier makes her exit from the film to the strains of the song. Like so many things in QT’s films, there is a direct film homage he is working for, and this time the film itself shares a title with the song. In the early 70s, Blaxploitation films were all the rage, and Across 110th Street shares some values with that breed of film. However, thanks to the performances of two strong leads, a tight plot with substance, and some gritty camera work, Across 110th Street feels like it belongs beside a film like In the Heat of the Night more than The Monkey Shuffle or The Mack. With the same urban appeal that made films like The French Connection feel so very real, Across 110th Street invites the viewer to come up to Harlem and see how the racial barriers divide, insulate, and ultimately must be overcome. Plus, there’s shooting and Anthony Quinn socks a lot of people in the jaw. So worry not, there may be plenty of message, but there’s a whole lot more going on Across 110th.

Events are set in motion when a duo of mob guys goes to pick up their cash from the Harlem number runners. While counting it out, two black policemen burst in, but they aren’t there to break up the action. They’re phonies there to steal the cash. Gunning down the mob guys and the local Harlem mobsters, the two crooks hightail it knowing the police, the mafia, and the local boys will be on their ass. When the police are dispatched, Captain Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) certainly thought he was going to head up the investigation, but the boys downtown have other ideas and send in Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto) to head up the investigation and defuse racial tensions. While Pope’s presence might calm the streets, Mattelli and the Lieutenant butt heads over methods. Mattelli is fond of beating confessions out of suspects while Pope would question everyone in the tight lipped Harlem community. Meanwhile, out on the streets, mob enforcer Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) and the Harlem crime lord Doc Johnson (Richard Ward) are out to find the culprits and the money before the police can lock them safely in jail.

In the Heat of the Night, which I referred to earlier, was released in 1967 to much critical fanfare, and the story of a black and a white cop, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, teaming up to go against crime in Mississippi is somewhat the high brow version of what you get with Across 110th Street. However where it differs is the placement of the white cop. Rod Steiger’s character was a good old boy, but Anthony Quinn, who also produced Across 110th Street, instead is shown as an adversary to the community instead of one of their own. Yaphet Kotto’s character enters like the opposite of Poitier’s character, dealing with racism from within and not from outside. During one of the most poignant moments of Across 110th Street, Kotto’s Lt. Pope asks of Captain Mattelli, “When are you going to look at me as a cop?” This is the very crux of the story. Mattelli is so set in his ways of treating all the residents of Harlem as criminals that he can’t overcome seeing someone with the same skin tone as an equal, or worse yet, his superior.

Over the course of the film, Quinn’s character grows increasingly more dottering, and as events slip away from him, he finally sees the writing on the wall. Not only are his methods and procedures outdated, his whole system of thought is one of a bygone era. Mattelli is a relic, and thanks to the jarringly fine performance from Quinn, the character becomes fascinating to watch as his world crumbles behind his eyes. Anthony Quinn is certainly a legendary actor, and he had the clout to get the movies done he wanted to get done. I can only assume from the way he played his role that he felt very passionate about making Across 110th. Equally interesting to see is Kotto who commands the same kind of power with his voice that Poitier could, but Yaphet can convey more of a feeling of strength, power, and simmering, barely contained rage. If there’s any question of that, then look only to the next year when Kotto played the villain Mr. Big in the James Bond classic Live and Let Die.

There are many great performances in Across 110th Street, but I only wanted to touch on a couple of more. Richard Ward, perhaps best known as Steve Martin’s dad in The Jerk, is perfectly suited to play the gravel voice hoodlum Doc Johnson. While his role is minimal, the verbal sparring between Johnson and the Italian mobsters is a highlight of the film. I will warn anyone who wants to watch the movie not to be squeamish about racial epithets. They fly like crazy, and no one is safe. Ed Bernard should also get a shout out for his role as the one robber who had doubts about their actions, and Antonio Fargas, best known as Huggie Bear on Starsky and Hutch, makes an appearance as the crook who doesn't know how to sit on his money until the heat blows over. With his very flashy performance, Fargas looked like he was already playing Huggie some three years before the Bear would hit the small screen.

Director Barry Shear was no stranger to political tones in his films. While he had worked primarily as a television director over the years, he made a major contribution to cult cinema in 1968 when he directed the teen gets elected president feature Wild in the Streets. Like Wild, Across 110th Street seems to open the camera wide onto not just events in the film, but also what was happening in the real world. Shear filmed on location in Harlem, and the film feels all the better for it with gritty 70s New York feeling like the powder keg that it actually was. Of course, I can’t close out talking about Across 110th Street without again mentioning the music by Bobby Womack. The version of the title song up top feels more plaintive than the one used by Tarantino in Jackie Brown, but it sets the tone for the proceedings. Several of Womack’s other songs were used in the film, and each of them fits in perfectly. If you are not familiar with Bobby Womack’s songs, then take it from the ever lovin’ blue eye’d Bugg and get familiar with some great, great soul music.

While Across 110th Street isn't the most artful film to talk about race relations and it isn't the most badass, campy, or funny film to come out of the Blaxploitation era, it does succeed by being gritty and feeling very real. Sure, there might be too many Tommy Guns on the street for it to be as realistic as is could have been, but it takes the viewer back to a bygone era, one that hasn't fully vanished. While most of us don’t bat an eye at a cop due to his ethnicity, there are some who still don’t see a black man, an Asian, or even a woman as a cop. The lingering specter of racism still holds sway on the American people. If you don’t believe it, then ask yourself how many Presidents had to prove they were Americans by birth? In the film, Across 110th Street was the imaginary line where Harlem began and Manhattan ended. The real barriers were in the mind and in the heart, and if you’re going to cross those, as Mr. Womack says, “ You've got to be strong, if you want to survive.”

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. This is a terrific post about a movie that (I'll admit) I've made the mistake of over looking. I think one of the things that you point out is this: sometimes films that people look at as "fringe cinema" have the most liberty to address real world issues. This might look like a simple cop drama, but it sounds like they were reaching for something more. I'll need to see it to find out.

    Also, I'm getting chills thinking about Pam Grier singing that song before the credits come up on Jackie Brown.

    Nice work...look forward to more of your February posts.


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