“Across 110 Street” (1972)
Barry Shear’s “Across 110th Street” walks the precarious line between the gritty urban cop thriller for which the standard was set by the previous year’s “The French Connection” and the trashiest of blaxploitation, that unwittingly goes to great lengths that oily haired mobsters and watered down genre tropes don’t make for a satisfying mix. Shear’s predilection toward handheld camera shooting intends to weld a docudrama immediacy to the proceedings à la Friedkin, but all that results is a strained, incompatible visual aesthetic whose grittiness only makes the B-movie artificially of the characters all the more unpalatable.
As the result of a deadly Harlem robbery, which results in the death seven men, including two police officers, an energetic search for the perpetrators is led by Mafia psycho Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) whose interest in indulging in graphic, extended torture is only equalled by his acting the caricature of every overly emotive bad gangster performance including a particular affinity toward expressing every shade of human emotion with a death’s head toothy grimace. On the side of the proverbial angels is police Capt. Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn), a veteran cop whose delicate technique of beating witnesses results in not a single lead but effortlessly maintains the film’s provocative but needless my consistent level of brutality. Partnered with Mattelli’s old-school persona (by way of secondary corrupt film noir flatfoots) is the more satiric contemplative Lt. William Pope (Yaphet Kotto), whose gentler forbearance also fails to yield; with the resulting generational, racial and temperament frisson between the two reduced to a mere matter of appearance, with Pope looking quite dapper, whereas Mattelli continually looks as if he’s just fallen out of a Murphy bed.
The police procedural portion of the narrative is strangely unconcerned with contributing to a resolution of the story. As depicted, the police are always several steps behind the mobsters (who themselves are not depicted as being particularly bright); a fortunate circumstance for the director who seems far more interested in the detailed accounts of sadistic torture and murder by D’Salvio, whose grip of terror on the entire black community appears absolute, despite the open resentment expressed by Harlem criminal kingpin Doc Johnson (Richard Ward). In fact, there is little representation of the people of Harlem which does not involve citizens terrified of authority (lawful or unlawful) or characters exemplifying the most gaudy and insulting stereotypes to which the blaxploitation genre is subject to descend. The insult extends most emphatically in the character of Henry Jackson, the excitable and incompetent getaway driver of the robbery. As played by that perpetual perpetrator of extremely obvious scene chewing, Antonio Fargas, every offensive stereotype is painfully magnified; the antithesis of Kotto’s Pope, who is frankly introduced as the new face of black empowerment, though his character is never afforded a single opportunity to demonstrate that he is anything but professionally impotent; both in his investigative acumen and in his ability to connect with the surrounding community.
However, if the film chooses to shamelessly exploit the very real vein of historic despair which engulfs much of this urban community, then where is the equally appreciable righteous anger? One solitary, powerful monologue by robbery leader Jim Harris (well delivered by the estimable Paul Benjamin) with an implosive intensity that is equal parts despair and rage, is demonstrative of a more profound and provocative route the filmmakers might have chosen, though this a fleeting moment of literacy in a film which quickly chooses to consign this character to the ash heap of disposable exploitation by unaccountably turning the man into an insatiable killing machine, thus ending the film in a consistent note of primal bloodletting, a surrender to Man’s baser instincts and a total rejection of understanding as an alternative to the dehumanizing rewards of cinema nihilism.