The Harlem-set blaxploitation movies of the 1970s – films like Super Fly, Black Caesar, and Hell Up in Harlem – share a specific verbal language, and few of its cornerstones were as recognizable as the high, wide aerial shots that typically opened them. This imagery served a specific purpose, Stanley Corkin writes in Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s, ensuring that “a viewer’s first encounter what that region is from a perspective that distances and reduces its streets and inhabitants.” This view, he continues, “is one that is associated with the surveyed city, a space that employs an eye-in-the-sky to take in that which is distant both physically and culturally, but which requires scrutiny in order to be observed and controlled.”
This practice is even more acute in Barry Shear’s 1972 urban action drama Across 110th Street (newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video), working as the film does from the notion that the streets of the city create borders – impassable ones, if you know what’s good for you. The thesis of the title (and title song) is that 110th Street, on the southern edge of Harlem, is the clear demarcation line between white and black New York. But organized crime creates strange bedfellows, and no sooner has that opening song ended than a trio of black stick-up men have burst into the doors of a Harlem apartment where a group of white mob underlings are picking up numbers money. A bloodbath ensues, leaving seven dead, from the worlds of white organized crime, black organized crime, and police. These three circles will continue to both collide and converge over the 100 or so minutes that follow.
“What else brings whites to Harlem but business?” muses Lt. William Pope (Yaphet Kotto), the young black police detective assigned to lead the investigation, much to the chagrin of long-timer Captain Frank Marshall (Anthony Quinn, who also co-produced). In a closed-door meeting, their superior explains to Frank that the “politicians feel” that Pope should head this racially complex case up, “because he’s black,” assuring the white detective that “It’s just politics” – you see, the appearance of progress is as good as actual progress. (Better, frankly!)
And thus, as in many a cop picture, the polar-opposite cops are paired up: the young, black, idealistic rookie with the old, white, corrupt veteran. (Pope is such a straight arrow, he doesn’t even drink, to which his new partner retorts, “You will, Pope. You will.”) Like the contemporaneous Serpico, Badge 373, and The Seven-Ups, Across 110th Street bluntly interrogates the law and disorder within the NYPD itself, a chaotic environment thanks not only to the disarray of the city but also to the effect of Miranda-era changes in policing policy. (“Look, I am sick and tired of your liberal bullsh*t,” Marshall rages at his new partner. “are you a cop, or one of them social workers?”)
It plays, in spots, like an answer record to the Harlem bar scene in The French Connection, wondering how effective the old-fashioned tough white cop would really be in a neighborhood like this one. The answer, it seems, is not very, though Luther Davis’s script doesn’t skew too far in the other direction either; Pope spends the picture learning the difference between theory and practice, particularly when Marshall’s sources turn out to have some value – and the tip that cracks the case for them comes from Doc Johnson (Richard Ward), a black underworld figure who’s had Marshall on the payroll for years and seeks to put the young “college boy” in his pocket as well. (It’s worth noting that the film was released on December 19, 1972, eight days before the final report of the Knapp Commission’s investigation of the NYPD, detailing widespread police corruption within the department and depending heavily on the testimony of Frank Serpico.)
The NYPD isn’t all that’s changing. Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), described by Doc as “the old man’s son-in-law,” is placed in charge of recovering the mob’s money, because, as he’s warned, “we have to teach them a lesson or we lose Harlem.” He comes uptown barking orders and expecting fealty, but Doc’s not having it: “I’ve been in charge here 15 years, and nobody tells me how to run my business.” He’s wrong, of course; it’s the early 1970s, a time for various changing of guards, and one of the subtler undercurrents of Across 110th Street is its interest in young up and comers, whose new ways of thinking and doing things make waves but ultimately do little more than strengthen the status quo.
Shear works in a blunt, direct style, looking down the barrel of his compositions (sometimes literally). Like much of its blaxploitation brethren, the budget is low, but Shear (and cinematographer Jack Priestley, who also shot such Grimy Gotham classics as Born to Win and Where’s Poppa) use the small crew and lightweight gear to their advantage, adopting a scrappy, run-and-gun energy for the chase scenes and action beats. They also stage the climax on a series of city rooftops, a common solution for low-budget pictures in the era looking to grab some urban flavor without the hassles of crowd control.
But contemporary critics resisted the film, and audiences stayed away; what little cultural currency it’s retained is mostly due to Bobby Womack’s title song, which Quentin Tarantino memorably used to open Jackie Brown. But Across 110th Street’s title sequence uses a different, darker version of the theme – more urgent, driving, and pressing – and the movie matches it. It’s a brutal, grim piece of work, full of moments that aren’t typically included in a picture of this type.
Chief among them is the scorching scene in which Jim (Paul Benjamin), one of the stick-up men, and his girlfriend Gloria (Norma Donaldson) discuss what he’s done, and why. It’s tough, angry scene, explicitly addressing the frustrations of the time and place, and the causality of the criminal; Jim, an ex-con, is grimly aware that his days are numbered, but he’s seen the kind of life that’s available to him, and he refuses to live it. “It was going to be one nothing job after another, and you’d be working at that club still being propositioned every night,” he tells her, pain in his voice, fear in his eyes. “How long would it be before we’d need the bread so bad I’d tell you do it?” In this one scene, you can see the germ of the entire Dennis Haysbert subplot of Heat – one of the elements that makes that movie such a complicated classic.
Greil Marcus writes at length about that scene, and the film in general, in his seminal Mystery Train, and I might not have quoted it so extensively a couple of weeks back had I known I’d be writing about it again so soon. Marcus pins the film’s popular failure on the fact that “the film refused its audience the pleasures of telling the good guys from the bad guys, and because the violence was so ugly it exploded the violence of the genre.” Across 110th Street was pointedly anti-escapism; it punctures the fantasy, propagated by the likes of Black Caesar and Super Fly, of the black criminal who takes on the Mob and triumphs. That’s not how it goes here – the hot-headed young mobster brutalizes these black men, with words and actions, so mercilessly that we flinch and look away.
That happens a lot. Shear’s worldview is borderline nihilistic, which situates the picture closer to the traditions of New Hollywood than blaxploitation; it was pitched to the wrong audience in 1972. The film pulses with doomsday impulses, right up through the final scene, where the last surviving stick-up man knows he’s going down, and doesn’t care who he brings along. When he discusses the job with one of his accomplices, they talk about it like a suicide mission, which it was. But both have decided that a moment of triumph is better than a life of resignation, and just before the forces of both cops and criminals converge upon them, Jim and Gloria share a moment of shared quiet and contentment.
“We’re gonna make it, aren’t we?” she asks.
“Yes,” he purrs back, and for a moment, just a moment, he seems to believe it.
“Across 110th Street” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.