Home » Stepping Over the Line: ‘Across 110th Street’

Stepping Over the Line: ‘Across 110th Street’

by Bill Mesce
Across 110th Street

‘Across 110th Street’: An Oral History

About a million years ago, give or take a millennium or two, I was an undergrad at the University of South Carolina taking a screenwriting class under William Price Fox, a southern author of some repute who had also worked in the movie business for a few years.  I don’t remember how, since Fox never worked from a lesson plan, but at some point, the classroom discussion roamed around to adaptations. Fox – perhaps benefitting from his vantage point of being a writer of both prose and for the screen – asserted it was easier to make a good film out of a bad book rather than a good film from a good book.

While I’m sure with enough googling one can find a fair number of exceptions to the rule, as I’ve gotten older (and also written for both mediums), Fox’s point has come to seem truer and truer…at least to me.  Randomly, I think of John Sturges’ stale adaptation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1958), John Huston’s noble but flawed attempt at Melville’s Moby Dick (1956), and all those runs at Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1926, 1949, 1974, 2013).

On the flip side – making Fox’s point – Orson Welles took potboiler Touch of Evil (1958), and came up with a noir classic, few people remember (thankfully) that Jaws (1975) was a badly-written book with a great hook before Steven Spielberg and a parade of writers reshaped it into one of the all-time classic adventure thrillers, and in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo’s lurid Mob tale which he’d only written to pay off some gambling debts was turned into not one but two of the greatest films in the American cinema canon: The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather:  Part II  (1974).

Across 110th Street (1972) is hardly The Godfather (or even Touch of Evil, for that matter), but it’s a hell of a tough little crime flick, unjustly dismissed in its time, written off (and possibly tainted) by the torrent of blaxploitation shoot-’em-ups of which it was judged – not quite accurately – to be a part.  And I doubt anybody remembers there had ever been a novel.

Across 110th Street Retrospective

Post-WW II, the loosening grip of the Old Hollywood moguls, the rise of myriad independent production companies, the rising social consciousness of postwar America, and a need to take on riskier material to combat the migration of the movie audience to the living room TV produced any number of movies on the social issues of the day:  the corporatization of the American soul, the threat of nuclear war, anti-Semitism, and so on. Perhaps most prominent among them were movies focusing on the issue of race.

They were movies large and small, poignant and melodramatic, heated and melancholy, nobly intentioned if flawed and near lyrical.  I’m talking about movies like Home of the Brave (1949), Intruder in the Dust (1949), Pinky (1949), No Way Out (1950), Cry the Beloved Country (1951), Island in the Sun (1957), Edge of the City (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), Imitation of Life (1959), All the Young Men (1960), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and, of course, arguably the artistic top of the heap, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Hollywood Cashes In…

It’s been said that the only color Hollywood sees is green, although this is both overly simplistic as well as defensive, letting Hollywood off the hook for its bouts of racial insensitivity/obliviousness, but that doesn’t make it completely untrue.   By the 1960s, the major studios realized there was money to be made in movies with topical relevance, and the issue of race, particularly with the rising media visibility of the struggle for civil rights, became a regular offering – i.e. Pressure Point (1962), Black Like Me (1964), One Potato, Two Potato (1964), A Patch of Blue (1965) – reaching something of a commercial zenith with two back-to-back monster hits in 1967:  Best Picture Oscar-nominee Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Number 4 in box office for the year behind The Graduate, the animated The Jungle Book, and a re-release of 1939’s Gone with the Wind), and Best Picture Oscar-winner In the Heat of the Night (Number 13 for the year), both starring the actor who’d practically become a cinematic icon of the (to white audiences) dignified, assertive yet unthreatening black male, Sidney Poitier (a third 1967 hit – To Sir, With Love – made Poitier the first black actor to be the top box office draw of the year).

Across 110th Street Anniversary

But for all the attention Hollywood increasingly gave the issue of race, there remained a persistent blind spot to the industry’s focus.  Although these were movies about race, they were, for the most part, from a white point of view set in a white universe for a primarily white audience.  More often than not, these were films about whites struggling with their prejudices, and blacks struggling for acceptance by and in white society. Very few movies actually paid much attention to what life was like in the black universe.  Oh, they existed – Carmen Jones (1954), Anna Lucasta (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), Raisin in the Sun (1961), Nothing But a Man (1963) – but there was an apparent feeling in Hollywood that movies about African Americans were only of interest to African American audiences, and big box office lay with the wider market of white ticket buyers.

The movie business has a dynamic similar to that of penguins (bear with me here).  When penguins go swimming, they mill around at the edge of the ice sheet waiting for one of their number to go first (or fall in, demonstrating penguins are just as gutless as movie execs).  If that first brave or unfortunate soul doesn’t get eaten by a shark, orca, or seal, only then do the rest jump in.

The commercial success of movies about race, like Guess Who’s… and In the Heat… demonstrated there was a commercially viable black audience hungry to see something of their world reflected on the big screen.  They’d been waiting the entire history of the motion picture up to that point for it, and in 1971, the scale finally tipped their way with two movies which spectacularly demonstrated the lucrative possibilities of movies about black Americans:  Melvin Van Peebles’ independently-financed Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and MGM’s Shaft.  

On a budget of just $500,000, Sweetback… would go on to gross $15 million (estimating admissions by the average ticket price in 1971, that would be the equivalent of almost $83 million today; enough to put it in the top 35 releases of 2019), while the $1.12 million Shaft would pull in $12 million; good enough to keep then floundering MGM from folding.  The effect of both films’ success on the movie business was nothing less than seismic.  Viddy Well’s essay, “The History of Blaxploitation Cinema,” puts it better than I can:  “If (Sweetback…) was the match that sparked the ignition of the blaxploitation movement, then…Shaft was the fuse that lit the dynamite.”

Across 110th Street Movie

Blaxploitation Cinema

Almost immediately came the deluge.  One way of understanding the flood of blaxploitation flicks that followed is to think of it as a sort of cultural catharsis for black audiences.  African Americans had been even more disenfranchised in film than they had been societally; they had been waiting decade after decade to see their lives and communities and escapist fantasies (even if in hyperbolic fashion) reflected back to them in a way that whites had been granted since the beginning of cinema.  In their almost aching hunger, moviemakers, producers, and film companies saw an easily exploitable mark for a quick buck. In the five years after the release of Sweetback… and Shaft, approximately 200 titles classed as blaxploitation flicks flooded out into movie houses.

While there was a lot of talk at the time about how blaxploitation movies represented some kind of black empowerment, the NAACP (which came up with the “blaxploitation” label) decried them as less about empowerment than reinforcing black stereotypes with their heavy reliance on super-macho heroes (or, more often, anti-heroes) and violence.  On another flank, the critical community was universally dismissive, but not without reason.

Blaxploitation flicks were often cheaply made and looked it, the humor was so broad as to make Tyler Perry’s “Medea” films look like drawing room comedies, plots pushed easy/lazy cultural buttons about black heroes/anti-heroes taking on “The Man” and tended to be shallow clones of mainstream genres like horror and gangster tales, and an awful lot of situations were resolved through brutality and violence.  Plainly put: most of them just weren’t very good. But, for the black audiences who’d been waiting years to see strong, independent black characters on the screen, for the moment, they didn’t have to be.

In that environment, it was easy for a black-centric movie that might superficially resemble blaxploitationers but was actually trying for something more substantive, more grounded, for something better, to be mischaracterized and dismissed.

Which brings us to Across 110th Street.

Across 110th Street

110th Street in Manhattan

110th Street in Manhattan cuts across the north end of Central Park.  In the 1970s, it was considered the dividing line between Harlem and — …  Well, Harlem and the rest of the world. In those days, if you were white, you were told the only two reasons to be north of 110th was because you were a cop…or a hood.

A Cadillac cruises up from below 110th and parks outside a Harlem walk-up.  The two whites inside are there to make a count and collect the week’s take from their black-managed rackets.  During the count, there’s a knock at the door: two cops. When one of the hoods inside attempts to pay them off, the cops break in, one of them brandishing a submachine gun.  The cops are not cops and this isn’t a raid; it’s a robbery. One of the hoods makes a grab for his gun and the submachine gun blazes away killing the two whites and the three black reps from their Harlem operations.  As the two phony cops run for their waiting getaway car, two real cops coming running up the street toward them. Another burst of gunfire and one goes down, the other is run down by the getaway car.

The three men on the heist will spend that night being hunted on one side by the Mafia, and on the other by the cops.  It will be a long, bloody night. As the poster for Across 110th Street warned:  “When you steal $300,00 from the mob, it’s not robbery. It’s suicide.”

Across_110th_Street_Poster_SS_1200_800_81_s

There’s a novel?

Going to the reason for my bringing up Bill Fox and his view about bad books/good movies, the 1970 novel, Across 110th Street, was hardly some kind of literary milestone.  Try googling the novel today and it’s hard to find any mention of it except as the basis for the film.

The author, Wally Ferris, was a TV cameraman based in New York.  He told one fan in a 1997 conversation that he’d intended the novel as a “tour of Harlem.”  I came across the novel when I was in college in the 1970s, and as I remember it, the novel showed Ferris’ cameraman’s eye for detail and an earnest sense of New York at the height of its police corruption problems, budget crises, and the racial tension of the era which had, by the end of the 1960s, left the hearts of dozens of American cities gutted by race riots.

What I also remember was that it wasn’t particularly well written.  It was no bestseller, hadn’t set either literary circles or commercial publishing buzzing.  In fact, Ferris never published another novel, and to my recollection I never remember conversations along the lines of, “When’s Ferris going to turn out another book?”

It was not, I dare say, the sort of literary and/or commercial acorn from which mighty cinematic oaks are expected to grow (at least Jaws had been a bestseller).

And it’s probably worth noting that despite Ferris’ serious intentions, the book had all the components which threatened to make it the basis of just another bloody, urban-set blaxploitation shoot-’em-up with its story of three black guys robbing a Mafia “bank” in Harlem and then find themselves over the course of one night pursued on one side by ruthless Mob goons, and on the other by corrupt and only slightly less brutal cops.  And maybe it was the expectation that such a story should be bad was why so many reviewers at the time wrote it off as just another bloody etc.

Which, in my view, it certainly wasn’t.  Bloody? Yes. Just another etc.? Hardly.

Across 110th Street

The movie’s creative pedigree alone signaled – whatever one thought of the final product – something other than another sausaged-out blaxploitationer.

I can’t find information on how the book came to Anthony Quinn’s attention, but obviously it did, and at the time Quinn was anything but a low-rent quick-buck hustler. 

By Across 110th Street, Anthony Quinn was an internationally-recognized star who had run up an impressive track record of movie roles extending back to the 1930s, and which included work in any number of top-class pieces of cinema, among them The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Viva, Zapata! (1952), La Strada (1954), Lust for Life (1956), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and perhaps his most iconic role, Zorba the Greek (1964).  Scattered throughout his career were two Oscar wins and a Golden Globe plus a host of nominations for Emmys, Tonys, more Oscars and Golden Globes and on and on and on.

Quinn took on Across… as executive producer, and he had a record as a serious person in that role as well:  a 1964 film adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play, The Visit, in which he co-starred with Ingrid Bergman; and as associate producer on Zorba, the acclaimed film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally acclaimed novel.

If you know anything about Quinn’s biographical background, one can see how the Across… novel might’ve struck a resonant chord with him.  Born in Mexico (his grandfather on his father’s side was Irish thus the “Quinn”), Quinn’s family later moved to Los Angeles where he did most of his growing up.  Because of his roots, Quinn was exposed to one form of prejudice or another for years including being dissed by his one-time father-in-law, Cecil B. DeMille. Even among Mexican communities, Quinn claimed the family’s surname had them branded as “outsiders.”  His Latino looks had Hollywood typing him early, and through the first decades of his film career, he was regularly cast in stereotypical ethnic roles — “They said all I was good for was playing Indians” – but, by the 1960s, he had developed enough of a stature in the business to declare he would fight against being typecast any further.  

That in mind, it’s unsurprising Quinn also had a history of social activism (perhaps it was in his blood; he was born in 1915 during the Mexican revolution and his father was supposedly a soldier with Pancho Villa), working on behalf of blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.  He had even been “gray-listed” during the 1950s because of his association with Hollywoodites who had been branded as Communists or Communist sympathizers.

The year after Across 110th Street was released, Quinn described his vision of the movie’s story in the foreword he penned for Leonard Katz’s biography of Mafia chief Frank Costello, Uncle Frank, and it was a bit more thematically expansive than Ferris’ “tour of Harlem”:

“…the story is basically about a minority – in this case, the blacks.  They are not only suffering the usual indignities all minorities go through but are being squeezed by ‘the mob’ and victimized by their own people.”

Ferris’ book was not especially about race although it was an obvious component of his plot, but it is integral to the film; in fact, it’s one of its driving engines.  Credit for that goes to Luther Davis who was brought in to pen the adaptation, and who, like Quinn, was no Hollywood hack.

Davis had, for years, been successfully moving between writing for the stage (credits included Tony-winning musical Kismet), film (The Hucksters, 1947; film adaptation of Kismet [1955], among others), and TV (including an Edgar Allan Poe Award-winning episode of Kraft Suspense Theater).

Davis gave Ferris’ plot a texture and layers the novel didn’t have.  The robbery, in Davis’ hands, is an act of desperation by men damned by circumstance and their race to a position of having nothing to lose.  Justifying the robbery to his girlfriend, Jim Harris, leader of the heist tells her:

“Look at me, huh!  Look at me!  You’re looking at a 42-year-old ex-con nigga with no schooling, no trade, and a medical problem!  Now, who the hell would want me for anything but washing cars or swinging a pick? You gotta get your mind out of that white woman’s dream!”

The last part of that last line – “…white woman’s dream!” – is emblematic of the flavor Davis was able to weave throughout the story in a much stronger way than Ferris; the idea that African Americans lived in – or rather were locked into — some separate world, privy to images of the benefits of white society, enough to stoke their fantasies of attainment, but denied the opportunity or even the recognition that they might be worthy of that kind of life.  

In Davis’ telling, prejudice is a casual part of everyday life.  Two white cops come into a dry cleaner’s shop to pick up their uniforms.  When the black counterman tells them the price with tax, “Screw the tax,” says one of the cops and they stiff the counterman for that amount; that’s life in Harlem.

Davis also had a more acute eye for the politics of the time.  Unlike the black detective in the novel assigned to the case, in the movie, Lt. Pope is positioned as a usurper to the white police captain, Matelli, who would normally handle the case.  Matelli is quietly told by the Chief of Detectives that this is a political decision made by their superiors, a token sign of their progressiveness at a time when several are running for re-election.  When Matelli threatens to resign over having to play second fiddle to Pope, his boss tells him, “They’d like that…They’re pushing out everybody over fifty. How old are you?”

What’s that about the plot?

This brings up another sharp build-out by Davis on Ferris’ plot.  The two parallel hunts for the three robbers – one by the Mafia, the other by the cops.

Davis constructs them as distorted mirror images of each other.  Nick D’Savio is tasked by his don to hunt down the three thieves.  “It’s not about the money,” the don – D’Savio’s father-in-law — tells D’Savio, but about honor, respect; maintaining their authority over the black-run Harlem rackets.  But like Matelli, D’Savio – who we’re given the impression hasn’t amounted to much in the Mob — is aging out. “This might be the last time I can do something for you,” the don tells him.

Also like Matelli, D’Savio has his black counterpart:  Harlem racket boss Doc Johnson. And also like Matelli, D’Savio is a racist though in more flagrant, rub-noses-in-it way.

Two men on what might be their last go-around in their respective professions, racing each other to find the three desperate men looking for a way out who took down the Mafia bank and left seven men dead; all of it set in a Harlem rife with poverty and hopelessness:  the strength of Davis’ construction is in its balancing and interweaving – as did In the Heat of the Night – pungent social comment with strong personal drama and a commercially viable mix of suspense and action.

Barry Shear was given the director’s chair and the task of making Davis’ concoction work on the screen.  At the time, Shear had only one previous feature film credit to his name, but he had a respectable career in television dating back to the earliest days of commercial broadcasting.  Of his TV work, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi wrote in their 1979 book, The American Vein, their first-of-a-kind reference work on TV directors, “(Shear’s) TV work is…consistently remarkable…he seems to be able to invest (shows) with an almost immediately recognizable quality…His understanding of pace, rhythm, angle, cutting, etc. place him if not on the same level as Don Siegel, not far below.”  He also, they thought, demonstrated a particular affinity for “The crime-on-the-streets theme with a concern and emotional sympathy for ethnic cultures, values and problems…” which seemed to form-fit him for Across 110th Street.  And as for bankability, his one previous feature – Wild in the Streets (1968) – and its story of a youth takeover of the U.S., hasn’t aged well, but it was buzz-worthy in its time, modestly profitable ($4 million returned on a $1 million budget), and earned Shear a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival. 

Across 110th Street

The Cast of Across 110th Street

Casting also demonstrated the serious intentions behind the film, carrying more weight than the typical blaxploitation title with not a Fred Williamson or Jim Brown or the like in sight.  

Anthony Quinn had not planned on taking the role of Matelli, only doing so after John Wayne (yeah, I don’t understand the thinking there either), Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster had passed.  Quinn’s strongest performances in the past tended to be characters driven by their passions like his Gaugin in Lust for Life, or his life-loving Zorba, and his Matelli is in that vein:  proud, short-tempered, easily provoked to violence, and when Doc Johnson exposes his corruption in front of Pope, pitiful.

Quinn plays Matelli as an aging lion, on his last days, perhaps, but still presiding over his domain.  Davis gives Quinn a defining scene not long after the opening heist, wading through a crowded police station as Pope has dragged in what seems like the entire neighborhood for questioning.  As Quinn weaves through the crowd, it seems he knows many of the local denizens on sight; the weird but harmless, the potential troublemakers, lapsing into Spanish for one, answering the several pleas for help with, “I’ll take care of it.”  But if he seems to have a paternalistic attitude about his realm in which the entire population seems either black or Hispanic, he balks at the idea of serving under a black investigator.

In his first above-the-title role, Yaphet Kotto matches Quinn jab for jab, the angry young lion facing off with the aging one.  Kotto, however, was not the production’s first choice. Quinn had wanted Sidney Poitier who, through the 1960s, had become Hollywood’s go-to black leading man.  But when word hit Harlem about the possible Poitier casting, vocal pushback about Poitier carrying too much Hollywood glamour and not enough urban grit caused Quinn to rethink and he turned to the theater-trained Kotto who’d been slowly working his way up the casting ranks for a decade. 

Kotto’s Pope may be better educated than Matelli, more sophisticated and articulate, but he is no naïve idealist.  He’s shrewd, observant, and just as determined as Matelli to push at boundaries to get the job done. When the getaway car from the heist is pulled from the river and the tow truck driver balks at taking the car to the impound, Pope pushes past him, climbs in the truck cab and sprints off, car in tow, the tow driver left behind screaming after him.

He may be more humane than Matelli, but it’s as much about pragmatism as being a new kind of cop.  After he stops Matelli’s beating of an interrogation subject and Matelli rationalizes the brutality by saying, “My way gets results,” Pope points to the unconscious man on the floor:  “I don’t hear him saying a goddamn thing!”

His ambition is tempered with a brother cop’s understanding.  After Matelli’s corruption has been exposed, and Matelli makes a pitiful plea to be allowed to retire without shaming, Pope explodes at Matelli’s assumption that Pope would rat him out just because Pope is black.  “You want my job, don’t you?” Matelli asks. “Yes!” Pope declares, “but on my terms!”

Blaxploitation Cinema

I suspect Anthony Franciosa was brought on to play D’Savio because he and Shear had a history.  Franciosa’s career had begun in the 1950s and he’d been considered a rising star with blazing performances in films like A Face in the Crowd (1957), and reprising his Tony-nominated stage performance in the film adaptation of A Hatful of Rain (1957).  But by the 1960s, with a reputation for being difficult, he was relegated to TV roles and that’s where he and Shear crossed paths.  Shear directed Franciosa in eight episodes of the actor’s short-lived 1964-65 sitcom, Valentine’s Day, and then three episodes of the 90-minute drama, The Name of the Game, including a two-parter.

Gleefully sadistic, arrogantly and unapologetically racist, Franciosa’s D’Savio spits out the N-word like a cobra spits venom.  Watching the movie in today’s PC-policed times, Franciosa’s no-limits performance is frightening in every respect.

Playing in opposition to Franciosa was gravel-voiced Richard Ward as Doc Johnson.  Although not a particularly familiar face to mainstream audiences at the time, Ward had had a toe in show business off and on since tap-dancing on the vaudeville stage at age eleven.  Before he decided to concentrate on acting, he’d also served eleven years as an NYPD detective, so one can assume he knew the psychological terrain of Across 110th Street intimately.

Davis gave his script substance by rotating the focus around the major players making the film something of an ensemble piece, and exercising his stagecraft in mini-monologues given each of them, granting them a vibrant dramatic heft.  Ward burns up the screen with his in a scene where he faces off with Quinn. After the first of the robbers turns up horribly mutilated, Quinn orders Johnson to back off; no more bodies. It doesn’t go over well with Doc:

“Watch your motherfuckin’ mouth, white boy!  You might be something big to those booty-butts you work over down at the station, but goddammit, this is me!  Doc motherfuckin’ Johnson!”

Paul Benjamin had had only had bit parts in films before being cast as Jim Harris, a basement-dwelling janitor in a walk-up tenement who plans the robbery he sees as his only way out of the ghetto.  Quinn had originally thought of Harry Belafonte for the part, but the same neighborhood flak which had switched him from Sidney Poitier to Yaphet Kotto eventually led him to Benjamin (Quinn had also been looking at Sammy Davis, Jr. for the getaway driver, but, again, the “too Hollywood” label nixed Davis and the part went to Antonio Fargas).

Benjamin plays Harris as Black Man’s rage incarnate; trapped by his background, trapped by where he lives, trapped by his color, raging against a world that will give him no quarter, in which his only option is to end “…cleaning up after some goddamn white man!”, angry at the naivete of his girl’s buying into the “white woman’s dream” that stepping up was ever going to be possible for them.  

Barry Shear wanted a defiantly anti-Hollywood grittiness to the film which meant shooting in Harlem which meant bringing on Fouad Said as one of the producers.

Across 110th Street

The Look

After studying film at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the Egyptian-born Said began his Hollywood movie career as a cinematographer in the late 1950s, but revolutionized location filming in the 1960s – and earned himself a technical Oscar — with his invention of the Cinemobile system:  essentially a mobile film studio compressed into a single van which eliminated the caravans of equipment (and exorbitant costs) typically associated with Hollywood location shooting and allowed filming nearly anywhere. By 1970, three out of four U.S. features then in production were employing Cinemobile.  Shear considered Said one of the masters of location shooting and indispensable to give the film the street cred he wanted.

Indeed, little of Across 110th Street’s locations are a set; no backlot streets, no pretend slums.  Thanks to Said and director of photography Jack Priestly, 95% of the movie was shot on location.  The cramped apartments and narrow halls and stairways of tenement buildings, the past-its-peak station house, the trash-littered empty lots and derelict buildings, Jim Harris’ cinderblock-walled cellar apartment with a wall filled with apartment electric meters, even Doc Johnson’s office looking out on a garage – the film is steeped in the feel of the New York streets.

One of Said’s key tools was the new Arriflex 35 BL camera, so lightweight it allowed filming in the most cramped settings.  If you want a showcase of what the Arriflex could do, look to the scene between Quinn and Tim O’Connor (as the Chief of Detectives) shot in a real apartment bathroom that, typical of New York walk-ups, doesn’t look much bigger than a men’s room stall.  The honest claustrophobia of the setting mirrors and amplifies Quinn/Matelli’s frustration at getting the news he can either turn in his badge or submit to working under Lt. Pope.

Across 110th Street

A greater problem than logistics was that it seemed nobody in New York wanted the movie made.  According to Quinn:

“…since the picture dealt with police corruption, the police didn’t want it made.  The black mob didn’t want it made, and the ‘organization’ didn’t want it made.”

Keep in mind that the Knapp Commission, convened by New York City mayor John Lindsay in the wake of a whistleblower story in The New York Times featuring NYPD officer Frank Serpico (yep, the same one in Sidney Lumet’s 1973 movie), had been poking into police corruption since June of 1970.  Understandably, the NYPD was a little sensitive on the issue. As for Mob sensitivities, well, I don’t think I have to spell that out.

According to Quinn, what saved what appeared, in January of 1971, to be a stopped-dead production, was a contact his co-producer, Ralph Serpe, made with one Francesco Castiglia aka Mob boss Frank Costello.  Costello had been “retired” – or as retired as one can be from being a Mafia chieftain – after an assassination attempt in 1957. He was said, however, to still retain influence in Mob circles, and, according to biographer Leonard Katz, “(Costello) knew the political ins and outs of the city as well as any man…”

Serpe arranged a lunch meeting with Quinn and Costello.  According to Quinn’s account of the meeting, Costello asked him what the movie was about, Quinn made his pitch, Costello ended with, “I see.  Well, good luck, kid.”

Again, quoting from Quinn:

“He didn’t say, ‘Don’t worry,’ or ‘I’ll take care of it.’  All I know is that a couple of days later, all the flack stopped.  The picture was made with the complete cooperation of Harlem and everyone else.  We had no trouble from anybody.”

Except for maybe reviewers.

Across 110th Street

The Reviews

At the time, reviewers were generally dismissive:

“It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide.” – Roger Greenspun, The New York Times

“…a virtual blood bath…” – Variety

One and a half stars. – Gene Siskel

“…so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers.” – Gary Arnold, The Washington Post.

“…self-destructs by consistently selling out to stomach-churning displays of unrelieved violence.” – Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times.

Yet today the film has an 80% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes among contemporary reviewers.  So, what changed?

I’m going to make a risky supposition here.  All those reviews I just cited? They were written by white guys.  Let me put it another way: they didn’t get it.

Greenspun complains there was no character passing as an “identifiable hero.”   Variety went on to say, “Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression.  There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.” Kevin Thomas admitted that “…the grisliness depicted so graphically…is true to life is undisputable,” quibbling only with the way it was depicted.

To which I would respond, in the vernacular of the time, No shit, Pillsbury.  That hopelessness, that unrelieved sense of oppression, all of the carpings and criticisms were exactly the point of both Ferris’ book and the film.  And it wasn’t all that much of an exaggeration.

This from a 1978 New York Times story on Harlem, “In Last Decade, Leaders Say Harlem’s Dreams Have Died”:

“An array of statistics indicates. that no matter how Harlem is measured—by its infant mortality rate, its alcoholism, its unemployment, its housing abandonment, its welfare dependency, its population loss or its low level of school achievement—this section of Manhattan seems to be poorer and less equal today than it was a decade ago. 

“There also is the evidence of the streets:  empty, boarded‐up stores along the once‐bustling 125th Street shopping corridor; burned‐out abandoned buildings demeaning almost every block of Harlem’s broad avenues, from 110th Street north to 155th; hundreds of idle men clustered at corners, drowning empty days in wine and whisky; youths barely into their teens selling drugs as openly as other boys hawk newspapers.

“In the last 10 years, an unknown number of Harlem residents—experts believe the figure is comparatively small, have clawed their way out of poverty…Those who remain constitute a double distillation of poverty…”

All of which makes Jim Harris’ rage, desperation, and willingness to – in a line that won’t come along for another 33 years – get rich or die tryin’ not only understandable, but horrifyingly credible.  In fact, all of Across 110th Street’s noiry stew of flawed and tragic characters makes a sad and tragic sense, from Matelli’s corruption to Doc Johnson’s assertion of malevolent racial pride to three black men willing to roll the dice and bet their lives on one long-shot chance to grab and get out.

Across 110th Street

It’s a bit of a task nearly a half-century after the fact trying to figure out if the movie connected better with ticket-buyers than it did with reviewers.  IMDB and the site The Numbers report a North American gross of $10 million for the film which would’ve been respectable if not overly impressive. However, a January 1974 recap of the 1973 box office by Variety reports rentals of $3.4 million.  Since, at the time, rentals – the portion of the box office returned to the studio – were typically half of the gross, that suggests a gross of about $7 million, give or take.

Some things to keep in mind:  Across 110th Street was released mid-December 1972.  In those days, films did not usually get wide, national openings, thus today’s obsession and reliance on huge openings wasn’t a factor then.  Most of the movie’s earnings would’ve been in 1973.

I haven’t been able to find information on the costs for the film.  Shaft cost $1.3 million (slim at the time).  Considering the talent involved in Across… and giving the movie a good, hard look, I’d ballpark the film’s price tag at probably no more than $2 million (point of comparison:  1971’s The French Connection cost $1.8 million).

What this means is that Across…’s performance ranged, I would guess, between modestly profitable, to ok.  Part of the success of Shaft was that the film crossed over into the mainstream and brought in white ticket buyers.  Across… doesn’t seem to have generated that kind of buzz or business, and if that’s the case, there are some clues as to why.

Look at the one-sheets for the film (you can see them online) and they do promise just another violent blaxploitationer.  The trailer (which you can also find online) made the flick look like a wall-to-wall actioner (which it isn’t). And, certainly those uniformly negative — …  Change that to hostile reviews were hardly going to attract the white suburban crowd.  If I had to guess, I would guess that those looking for more of the familiar blaxploitation button-pushing might’ve been disappointed, and those who might’ve appreciated there was more going on than the usual goings-on stayed away.  Across… didn’t cross over.

I don’t mean to oversell the film as one of the lost crime classics.  It is not without its flaws. There are some absolutely painful plot contrivances, like how Jim Harris, an epileptic, forgets his medicine when he relocates to a hideaway, just so he can send his girlfriend to his apartment to pick them up, just so she can be spotted by the bad guys staking out Harris’ place, just so they can trail her to his hideout.  Or how Lt. Pope shows up at Doc Johnson’s office during Matelli’s face off with Matelli just in time to save Matelli from probably getting his ass blown away without any explanation as to how Pope knew where to find him. And there’s the final shoot-out, admittedly excitingly shot across the tenement rooftops of Harlem, but a bit over-the-top.

The biggest flaw, yet the cornerstone of the whole plot, is why three guys who just killed seven men and have $300,000 in cash in their pockets don’t get the hell out of town!

The Soundtrack

And then there’s J.J. Johnson’s score.  While Bobby Womack’s title song would hit #19 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart, Johnson’s funky very ’70s score hasn’t held up well.  Watching the movie recently with my wife, I was forced to agree with her that “…it sounds like Starsky & Hutch,” meaning not the tongue-in-cheek 2004 feature but the cool-then-not-so-much-now late 1970s TV cop show.

Still, Quinn, Shear & Company get enough right – get so much right – that Across 110th Street stands as a fast-paced, dramatically meaty, fully satisfying crime thriller, unfairly forgotten.

But I have a feeling that simply re-appraising its cinematic qualities is not the only reason its status is so much higher than it was forty-eight years ago.  Maybe we have more reason to “get” the film now than Quinn, Shear, Davis, and even Ferris could’ve anticipated.

One would have to be the most cynical of cynics not to admit that, racially, we’ve come mile-long strides from where we were as the turbulent 1960s transitioned into what President Jimmy Carter would describe as the “great malaise” of the 1970s.

Black employment is up, black incomes are up, interracial couples barely raise an eyebrow these days and even appear in TV commercials, black social mobility is greater than it ever was, and, of course, there was the presidency of Barack Obama.  And since the 1990s, even Harlem has been reviving.

However…

Across 110th Street movie

One would have to be the most obnoxious, naïve, uninformed, and possibly racist of Pollyannas to think we’re where we’ve always said we wanted to be…or even where we should be.  And what became clear during the Obama years was that the enfranchisement of the previously disenfranchised was looked at, in some circles, less as progress than as a threat.  The rise of hate groups and hate crimes over the last three years, continued voter suppression in some states targeting minorities, as well as, according to surveys, a racial paranoia in some quarters as a reaction to the Obama years, are all red flags that not only have Americans not resolved their racial issues, but that in some sectors there may have even been some backsliding.

And there’s this; maybe the black anger that drives so much of Across 110th Street isn’t just black anger anymore.  Over the last twenty-odd years or so, middle- and working-class incomes have only risen, accounting for inflation, modestly, offset by rising health care costs and crippling student debt.  Faith in government is at an all-time low, income disparity at an all-time high, the cry from the political stage is that the middle class and its dreams of the American dream are dying if not dead.  While most are working harder and working more just to stay even (barely), the rich are not only getting richer, but they’re getting phenomenally richer, and they seem to have pulled the ladder up after them.

Jim Harris’ rage is not only more understandable today than it was in 1972, it is more widely identifiable.  Perhaps the reason the movie works better now than it did back then, is because more of us feel that the only way up and out is a desperate step over our own 110th Street to get rich…or die tryin’.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our spotlight on blaxploitation cinema.

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