Across 110th Street is set in Harlem, New York, where 110th Street is an informal boundary line, separating Harlem from Central Park; symbolically dividing New York City by wealth, class and race (although that’s certainly no longer quite the case, 41 years after the film was made.
Three black armed robbers (Paul Benjamin, Antonio Vargas and Ed Bernard) slaughter five men – three Blacks and two Italians – in a raid on a Mob-owned Harlem policy bank that nets them $300,000. And the chase begins, with 2 different groups hunting for the men – the sadistic, racist Mafia lieutenant (Anthony Franciosa), seizing the opportunity to prove himself, with the task of retrieving the stolen goods; and the 2 cops (Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn) determined to track down all 3 men before the Mafia does.
How will it all end? Tick-tock… tick-tock…
It’s a fairly straightforward affair. In its most simple definition, it’s a heist film similar to others of its time and prior. But it’s also more than that.
Shades of films like In The Heat Of The Night, with Yaphet Kotto playing the younger, black, by-the-book, dapper, can’t-be-bought, no-nonsense “college boy” cop, not-so unlike Sidney Poitier’s Detective Tibbs; and Anthony Quinn as the older, whiter, racist, rugged, least “unrefined” of the duo – essentially Rod Steiger’s Chief Gillespie.
The film is seething with racial tension as well as solidarity.
Above all, it’s entertaining, yet, dare I say, quite dark; we could even describe it as heist noir, with its darkness seemingly separating it from films often tagged (rightfully or not) with the blaxploitation label, mostly thanks to the performance by great character actor Paul Benjamin, whose quietly intense onscreen presence sometimes seemed as if he was in an altogether different movie than the somewhat stagy performances given by Kotto and Quinn (a minor quibble).
I loved every minute Benjamin was on screen. It’s a shame he didn’t get to perform much more than he did over his 30-year long career.
Unlike other heist films like A Piece Of The Action and Oceans 11, there’s little comedy here.
Taking place in about a 24-hour period, there’s a relentless melancholy that tinges each and every scene; the kind of sadness that comes from hopelessness and dreams deferred – a path that leads to an even deeper depression, or maybe even worse, as we witness in the film, an unhealthy desperation.
This isn’t Woody Allen’s privileged New York. This is the New York of films like The French Connection, Shaft, and Taxi Driver… the grit and the grime of it all, crime lords, corrupt cops, male bravado to spare, drugs, violent deaths… It’s not pretty.
In fact, I’d even go as far as to compare Paul Benjamin’s character (Jim Harris) to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but with the weight of racial oppression on his back – working class men disillusioned, fed up and frustrated with the lot life has dealt them, resolving to do what they deem necessary for their own fulfillment, and that of others of significance to them; both armed and eventually dangerous.
In the end, karma is a bitch, and everyone gets what’s coming to them, good or bad. If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, or Jules Dassin’s Rififi, 2 most-worth heist films that came before it, you’ll know what I mean: Some go out in a whimper; some with a bang; others in a blaze of glory.
The 102-minute running time actually seems to go by rather briskly; From the first scene to the last, it’s paced fairly quickly, violent and action-filled, with the occasional rest-stop to breathe, highlighting the humanity within it all, giving the film balance – for example, a raw, tender moment between Harris and the woman he loves and wants to protect, as he justifies his reasons for his actions; as well as scenes of vulnerability and reassurance between men – specifically between Harris and the trepidatious Logart, one of his partners in crime, post the heist, with the scent of death in the air, influencing him.
As suggested previously on this blog, the word blaxploitation needs to be further deconstructed, to expose both assumptions and contradictions. I’m not even sure what the word means anymore. It’s become this unfortunate blanket term we plaster on any film made in the early to late 1970s, that tells stories primarily about black people.
There also seems to be a stigma that has long accompanied films with that specific label, and unfairly so.
Here’s a film, in Across 110th Street, considered a blaxploitation movie that, while certainly not what I’d call a great film, is superior to many others of its supposed brand, and worth a viewing, if you haven’t already seen it.
It’ll be of some assistance to you if you’re already familiar with other films of the era, if only for comparison.
And if you’re in New York, it’ll screen this Saturday, August 24, at the Museum of the Moving Image, in Queens, as part of its Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967–75 screening series, curated by film critic and historian J. Hoberman.
The series, which will be accompanied by a new monograph written by Hoberman, includes nineteen films, and will be presented by Museum of the Moving Image from August 10 through September 1.
A special screening of Superfly, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary, accompanied by a discussion with co-star Sheila Frazier, and followed by a costume and singing contest, took place on Friday. Erik Luer had a few words to say about that film on this blog, on Friday, HERE.
For more on the screening series click HERE