REVIEW: Across 110th Street (1972)

Barry Shear’s Across 110th Street (1972) is the sort of film for which the word ‘muscular’ seems intended. Produced in 1973 and released to American cinemas a year later, it is an inspired crime film that draws on multiple influences of its time: a bit of Italian organised crime via The Godfather, and a lot of African-American culture and struggles via the then-popular Blaxploitation genre. With a white director and screenwriter adapting a novel by a white author, and co-starring Anthony Quinn, it is definitely not a Blaxploitation picture in its own right. It sits beside the genre, however, as a strong and hugely effective remix of American cinema in the early 1970s.

When a botched criminal raid on a numbers racket results in the deaths of seven people – including two police officers – Captain Frank Mattelli (Quinn) is partnered with Lieutenant William Pope (Yaphet Kotto) to investigate. Meanwhile both the Italian Mafia and a Harlem gangster are hunting for those responsible themselves.

There is a hardened edge to American crime films in the early 1970s, whether in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), or any number of films released between them. The characters feel a bit more ragged and morally compromised. The violence is bluntly unpleasant; something as simple as a punch to the face actually hurts. There is a cost to everything. Endings, while satisfying, are rarely entirely happy.

Prior to a recent release of the film by Australian bluray distributor Imprint Films I was not even aware Across 110th Street existed, although like many I was familiar with Bobby Womack’s popular theme song. It is a revelation: a well-paced and impactful contemporary of Friedkin and Sargent’s works that capably stands with them shoulder-to-shoulder. It takes New York and bisects it along the titular 110th Street: white, wealthy mafioso to the south, and the poorer African-American Harlem to the north. The racism that struggles to control the black community is felt on both sides of the criminal fence: mafia boss Nick D’Salvio (a marvellously spiteful Anthony Franciosa) resents associating with Harlem boss “Doc” Johnson (Richard Ward, wonderfully smug), while Mattelli – an open racist – bristles at Pope’s presence on the case.

Anthony Quinn is truly superb as Mattelli: he’s a few years off retirement, straining at the edges, and deeply resenting the approach of younger and more effective officers rising the ranks behind him. Pope wants to solve their case; Mattelli thinks Pope wants his job. There is a classic old cop-new cop dynamic between them. Pope plays by the roles, while Mattelli is never above beating a suspect if it gets him the result he wants.

As Pope, Yaphet Kotto is the film’s finest asset. He is professional, considered, and reserved. He lives his career ‘by the book’, not because he is a simple, upstanding individual, but because he is keenly aware of his race and class and knows he must obey all rules to earn respect and the career he is due. There is a powerful physicality to Kotto, and it gives Pope a tremendous presence. He is tightly wound throughout the film, ready to snap at any moment, and that potential makes him a riveting presence.

Technically speaking the film pops off the screen thanks to the use of then-new lightweight film cameras that allowed a near unprecedented level of handheld and location-based photography. Much of the film was shot in real-life Harlem, despite its high crime rate and the displeasure of the production’s studio funders. It gives everything both a sense of reality and of immediacy.

Across 110th Street is a proper gem waiting to be discovered. It’s new home video release will hopefully help with that. This is a smart, sharp, and regularly brutal blend of action and thrills that deserves to be remembered in the same breath as its more famous contemporaries.

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