ACROSS 110TH STREET — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Veteran television director Barry Shear had already made a name for himself directing TV shows ranging from "Tarzan" to "The Mod Squad" when he helmed what was to be the grittiest Blaxploitation film of the genre. Bobby Womack’s iconic theme song supports the picture’s real-world details about Manhattan’s dividing line between the ghetto and what most people associate as Manhattan. Indeed, Bobby Womack’s rich contribution of songs such as “Do It Right,” “If You Want My Love,” and “Hang On In There,” help express the film’s persistent soulful elements.
The set-up is simple. It's the early '70s. Three black gangsters rob a pair of Italian mobsters and their three black cohorts while splitting up $300,000 in a Harlem brownstone. The heist goes bad, real bad. Much blood is spilled. Dressed as cops, the thieves kill everyone in the room with a machine gun. During their escape, the getaway driver (Antonio Fargas) runs down a real cop. What transpires over the course of the story is a race between a group of openly racist New York City detectives, and Italian mobsters to track down the three men guilty of the crime.
The local Harlem police precinct puts Lieutenant Pope (Yaphet Kotto) in charge of the case. Pope is black. This doesn't sit well with Anthony Quinn's aging racist cop character, Captain Frank Mattelli. Mattelli likes to use violence against black suspects he refers to as "boys" or with the "N" word. The filmmakers don’t sugarcoat anything.
For their part, the mobsters put the boss's son-in-law Nick D'Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) in charge of locating and exacting revenge against the bandits. Nick is every bit as racist as Captain Mattelli. They might as well be the same person even though they theoretically represent opposite sides of the law. Mattelli and D'Salvio take a meeting with Harlem kingpin Doc Johnson (Richard Ward) that is notable for for so much cheap wood panelling. Both men come to regret the lack of respect they show Doc Johnson.
"Across 110th Street" slyly loads its thematic dice with the personal lives of its desperate thieves. The impoverished plight of the men reveals them to be pawns in a system they barely begin to comprehend. The economic, psychological, and physical brutality these people suffer in Harlem is effectively expressed in the eyes of the supporting characters that witness their treatment. As exaggerated as the violence appears, it is in keeping with the social climate of the time. No punches are pulled, and rightly so.
Rated R. 102 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)
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