The history of cinema is littered with films that have done extremely well and in time been forgotten. Or, conversely, did poorly upon their initial release only to be re-evaluated over time and are now considered classics. There’s a swath that did mediocre/poor business and are justifiably -or not- forgotten today, just as there are those that were smashes upon their initial release and are viewed as classics to this day.
Then there are those films that are by and large forgotten today but deserve to be remembered.
Having just seen Across 110th Street, the 1972 feature starring Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, and Anthony Franciosa, I feel this is a film that deserves to be re-discovered by audiences today.
Here’s the movie’s trailer:
Way back in the stone age of the later half of the 1970’s, my family had a (gasp) betamax machine. Don’t remember the old betamax tapes? Here you go…
These tapes were smaller than VHS tapes, which came a little later, and were a video technology that VHS supplanted.
But in those days and while we were living in South America, families that hailed from the U.S. and were living there would trade betamax tapes among each other. These families would tape TV shows or movies or whatever they could find and bring them to South America and, over time, we’d get a hold of copies of copies (or original copies!). It was a way to entertain ourselves and see things that were in English versus the television shows/channels there which were all in Spanish.
Back then I very distinctly recall we had a copy of Across 110th Street but I never bothered (for whatever reason) to see the film.
So when it showed up on TCM and with memories of having -but not watching the film- waaaaaaay back then in my mind, I decided to record it (using the newfangled betamax of today, the DVR!) and, a couple of days ago, sat down and watched it.
First though: I’m kinda glad I didn’t see the film way back when I originally could have, assuming the copy we had was the uncut/theatrical version of the film. I suspect it was, but its also possible it was recorded off TV and might have been a cut up version of the film. Having said that, considering much of what happens in the film, I can’t even begin to imagine a “TV” version of Across 110th Street.
Had I seen this film back then, when I was perhaps between 10-13 years old, it would have certainly done a number on me!
This film is very much an adult feature, a movie that takes a cold eye on Harlem of the early 1970’s and of the mob and crime and police corruption and decaying neighborhoods and hopelessness (for the most part African American) citizens bear… and presents it all in an unflinching -though at times pulpy- manner.
It is the pulp elements that keep the movie from being, say, another French Connection but I’d argue the film is damn close to that work and -this is high praise indeed!- it even predates some of the earlier works of Martin Scorcese.
The movie’s plot goes like this: A small group of Italian mobsters get together with some African American hoods to count out their take for the past week or perhaps month. The source of the dough is never spelled out, but one can imagine its for drugs or prostitution or gambling or “protection” or maybe all the above… and more!
While counting the dough, a car parks beside the building they’re in and two African Americans in police uniforms exit the vehicle while the wheelman remains in the car, waiting.
These bogus officers barge into the room where the money is counted intent on robbery. There is a nervous energy and you can tell things are about to go to hell… all that’s needed is a spark.
Then it happens. The suitcase of money falls to the floor and one of the African American hoods reaches for his pistol. He, along with all the other hoods/mobsters in the room are machine gunned down and our two bogus cops/thieves beat it out of there with most of the money.
When they reach their escape vehicle, they are confronted by two real police officers, both of which they kill while making their getaway.
What follows are three stories: The police and their search for the murderous thieves in the form of the young and idealistic Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto) and the man he is about to supplant, the veteran, racist, and at times violent -yet paradoxically at times very tender- Captain Matelli (Anthony Quinn).
On the other side you have both the Italian and African American Mob under the cruel overview of Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) also searching for the murderers/thieves.
Then you have the murderers/thieves themselves, who are, incredibly enough, presented as three dimensional people whose despair is palpable even if the methods they use to try to rise up from their lowly status are not.
Across 110th Street manages to present almost all the major characters well. We understand Lt. Pope’s indignation with Captain Matelli yet also understand Matelli’s impatience with Pope’s idealism, which at times slows the investigation. Nonetheless, we wonder if maybe when Matelli first joined the force he was not unlike Pope but after a lifetime of service in these means streets, he became the hardened man he currently is. As I mentioned, he’s not all sharp edges: In an early scene we see Matelli vouch for what are clearly a transvestite’s boyfriend and later on he gives, from his own pocket, money to the wife of one of the thieves, even as we learn he takes kickbacks and is not below beating suspects to get confessions. Considering he’s presented as a racist bigot, its interesting he helps out a transvestite -we are talking about 1972 here- and further helps out the widow of the wife of one of the thieves, who had a hand in killing two very real police officers.
Nick D’ Salvio is also a curious character. He’s a relatively young mobster and we infer from the opening minutes that the older Mafia members consider him a foot soldier. They show something of a disdain for him and put him in charge of getting the stolen money because they can’t be bothered to dirty their hands. Perhaps, too, the money isn’t as important to them as making sure those responsible pay dearly for daring to rob from the mob. In his first appearance, he looks nervous and unsure and, later on, overcompensates in trying to look like a fearsome mobster/enforcer.
The more veteran African American mobsters see through his veneer and, while they agree to do his bidding, show considerable disdain for him and even laugh in his face while eventually plotting to do him in.
Then there are the criminals themselves. Their boss, at first presented as a stone cold killer, is revealed to be a man who is desperately poor and cursed with thinking about where he and his girlfriend’s life is going. In one particularly poignant scene, where he justifies his theft/murders, he reminds his girlfriend that she has to frequent the bars where she works constantly dealing with crude propositions. One day, he says, when they get so desperate for money, he fears he will tell her to accept these propositions and sleep for money just so they can get by.
Across 110th Street is violent and foul mouthed and shows us a dog-eat-dog world where no one is an angel and where the mob and the murdering thieves and the police are all tarnished by their environment and the city and aren’t really all that different from each other.
The movie’s title refers to the point where Harlem begins, the “other side of the tracks” so to speak, and the place they are all imprisoned in their own way.
The film moves like lightning and there is virtually no fat to be found, though there does seem to be at least one sequence that was cut. We go from the mob finding the first of the thieves/murderers, beating him, then taking him away to -we assume- really work him over to Pope and Matelli in a ambulance hurrying to the hospital with the severely injured and on the verge of dying thief/murderer. They try in vain to get him to tell them who were the others in on that theft but we never know how it is they got him and got to the ambulance.
It’s a weird, abrupt scene shift and I wonder if maybe they filmed the police finding the man and getting the ambulance to take him but the whole thing might have been too bloody (what the mob did to him is pretty gruesome) in the end to use.
Regardless, Across 110th Street builds as it goes along, the tension increasing as we get to know the characters and feel sympathy for some and growing anger towards others, culminating in a climax involving all three factions along with more violence and death.
If you haven’t seen it, Across 110th Street is very much worth your while, a top notch crime drama that fits in well with some of the better New York-centric crime dramas of that era.
POSTSCRIPT: I didn’t mention it but several of the actors, most notably Yaphet Kotto, would go on from this movie to appear in the first Roger Moore James Bond film, Live and Let Die. I saw at least two, maybe three familiar faces among the many characters presented in the film and Mr. Kotto, of course, would be the most familiar as he would play the Bond villain Kananga.