Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Kino Lorber Studio Classics: ACROSS 110TH STREET and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM ""

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kino Lorber Studio Classics: ACROSS 110TH STREET and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM

ACROSS 110th STREET (1972; Barry Shear)
It's hard not to associate this film with JACKIE BROWN. The opening title song by Bobby Womack is forever burned into my brain because of its use in the beginning and closing of Tarantino's film as well. It encapsulates Jackie herself (as played by the great Pam Grier) wonderfully and works perfectly (and arguably better) in JACKIE BROWN than this movie where it originated. That being said, ACROSS 110TH STREET is still one of the better things that Blaxploitation cinema has to offer. The ghetto fights back here as "The Family" finds themselves suddenly at war to keep from letting Harlem slip from their grasp. Anthony Quinn (in one of my favorite of his roles) is a NYC cop caught in the middle. Quinn's character is also caught up in the political rigamorall that has seen fit to assign another cop to a murder investigation in Harlem. That straight-laced by-the-book cop is played by Yaphet Kotto. Quinn's character is a rather old-school fella who still believed that roughing up a suspect is all part of the process of getting things done on his beat. Naturally, these two cops don't get along none too well. Kotto is among my favorite actors and he shines brightly in this film. He has this remarkable intensity to him when he wishes to call upon it. When he raises his voice, it is impossible not to feel him taking over a room. Also very good in this film is actor Paul Benjamin (ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, DO THE RIGHT THING) who kind of had his breakout a bit with this movie. This movie has a remarkable energy about it throughout. The black vs. white tension can be felt in almost every scene and it gives the whole thing the feeling of a powder keg ready to explode at any second. Unlike some other Blaxploitation films from around this time, this feels like a more realistic, gritty portrayal of the NYC ghetto. There's no John Shaft superhero-type to ride in and kick some ass. These are sad desperate people and they have no qualms about letting their primal anger take over. In the words of Bobby Womack's title tune, "Breakin' out if the ghetto is a day to day fight". As portrayed in this film, it's more like a an all-out war and an ugly one at that. It all makes for a mighty powerful procedural. Early appearances by pre-ROCKY Burt Young and a pre-Huggy Bear Antonio Fargas are a welcome sight indeed. As an aside, it is always fascinating to watch how police work is done in films pre-computers. Cops combing through phone books, pulling paper files and other such tribulations are an antiquated but amusing sight indeed.
Director Barry Shear was primarily a television guy working on such varied series as THE DONNA REED SHOW, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. and TARZAN as well as other shows and TV-movies. He also did a movie called THE DEADLY TRACKERS which was based on a novel Samuel Fuller (who was to direct and started to, but the project fell apart and was reassembled). Anyway, Shear may show his TV background a bit in terms of the style of 110TH STREET, but I didn't find it particularly bothersome. 
The transfer here is pretty good, plenty of grain throughout but heavy early on for sure, Solid detail though and I get a sense this film was made cheaply and quickly and was not meant to look like Vittorio Storaro or Gordon Willis shot it (the film stock used at the time may be a factor as to the way this transfer looks as well). DP Jack Priestly has also shot plenty of TV and some other NYC films like WHERE'S POPPA? and BORN TO WIN prior to this and those films are a bit more verite than stylish as is 110TH STREET.

Here's a neat interview I found with Paul Benjamin from 1995. He touches on his beginnings as an actor and works his way up to ACROSS 110TH STREET.

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970; Ossie Davis)
"Was that Black enough for ya?"
Owing it's characters to a series of source novels (by Chester Himes) featuring them, detectives "Gravedigger" Jones (Godfrey Cambride) and "Coffin Ed" Johnson  (Raymond St. Jacques) don't feel like they belong in the ACROSS 110TH STREET universe. The dimension they exist in is no less dangerous, but they themselves are more like supercops than Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn. At one point early on in the film, the duo demonstrate a near super-strength when they toss a man high into the air like some sort of rag doll. And the way these two speak in a clever, more traditionally hard-boiled kinda way makes them feel more a part of the Dashiell Hammett- verse than the real world. None of this is a problem mind you, I actually tend to prefer this kind if stylized canvas of crooks and cops going at each other. This film was cowritten (adapted) and directed by the great Ossie Davis. For me though, Godfrey Cambridge is the highlight here. He gives one of the most smug performances I've ever seen in a movie. He smirks his way through 90 percent of his time on screen and it's almost too much. He can pull of this kind of  hotshot pomposity like few others and whilst still making it entertaining.
The background of COTTON is filled with memorable character actors like Cleavon Little, Redd Foxx, Helen Martin and others. COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is certainly notable for its place as an early part of the Blaxploitation Cannon. Seeing such a large cast of black actors in a studio film was not a common thing around this time. There are very few white actors in the movie at all. One of the most notable  of them in the film for me was Leonardo Cimino (aka "Scary German Guy" from THE MONSTER SQUAD). Another highlight is it's depiction of Harlem circa the late 1960s. Lots of interesting locations and businesses with names like "Big Wilts", "King Fu Chow Mein" and my personal favorite, "Chili Woman".
This is a pretty nice looking transfer. The print appears clean and the colors pop nicely. Good detail here as well. 

Here's a sort of retrospective interview with Ossie Davis from 2002.

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