Three men steal $300,000 from the mob in this blaxploitation classic from 1972.
My main complaint with Black Mama, White Mama (co-written by Jonathan Demme, who sadly passed away yesterday) was that it had no bearing on reality. For Across 110th Street, the opposite is true. It features the nudity, violence and funk music that are staples of the genre, but equally it displays a strong social conscience. It’s a film about real urban struggles and racial tensions, which persist between and among the different groups of characters.
Anthony Quinn (Lawrence of Arabia) is excellent as Mattelli, a white cop so rough and bigoted he makes Popeye Doyle look like Popeye. His African-American partner Pope is impressively played by Yaphet Kotto (Live and Let Die), forced to contend with Mattelli’s racism. “When are you gonna start looking at me as a cop?”
They work the streets and dives of Harlem to find the three robbers, Jim, Joe and Henry (Paul Benjamin, Ed Bernard and Antonio Vargas respectively), while the gangsters who got ripped off make some enquiries of their own. Paulie from Rocky (Burt Young) also appears in an early scene, but is wisely killed off before he gets a chance to screw everything up.
All these characters are well-developed, with a conscious exploration of their various flaws and motives, even the thieves. When his girlfriend asks him to get a legitimate job, Jim replies: “You’re lookin’ at a 42 year-old, ex-con nigger, with no schoolin’, no trade, and a medical problem. Now, who the hell would want me for anything other than washin’ cars or swingin’ a pick?”
This is grounded by a strong sense of place and glued together by Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson’s groovy, atmospheric music. Quentin Tarantino would famously re-use the title track for Jackie Brown (albeit a different recording) as an homage to the blaxploitation genre, while Christopher Nolan would lift a number of moments for The Dark Knight, such as the spinning, upside-down shot of a character hanging off a roof.
The rooftop action and street-level drama is propelled by exciting chases, great costumes and quotable dialogue: “The last sucker that put his hands on me… lost ’em.” or “I’m sick and tired of your liberal bullshit! Now you have to decide: are you a cop or one of them social workers?”
Although it features scenes of torture, the film’s violent, abrasive quality is matched by its moral core. From its bloody opening to its symbolic final shot, Across 110th Street gives 110%.