Film Score: J.J. Johnson Cinematography: Jack Priestley
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Franciosa and Gloria Hendry
Sweet Sweetback and Shaft, came a spate of films dealing with blacks and drugs in New York City. Two of the more famous are Superfly and this film, Across 110th Street. Barry Shear had been directing TV shows since the early fifties and this was one of the few feature films he was given. To his credit, he manages to stay away from a static television style and comes up with some interesting camera angles and set ups. Shear would go on to direct in television up until his untimely death in 1979, while for screenwriter Luther Davis, who had also written mostly for television, this would be his final film before retiring from Hollywood. It’s a well-made film for the time, though it lacks the African-American credentials that most of these films boast, with the exception of the great jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson who wrote the film score and Bobby Womack who sang the opening song.
The film begins with a car riding up from Manhattan north into Harlem. Once there it stops in front of an apartment building and two white men get out. When they go upstairs they are greeted by three blacks with a table full of money, and they all begin counting it. In a brief role before he is killed is the recognizable face of Burt Young who would go on to fame in the Rocky films. The roomful of men is killed by a couple of blacks posing as police officers, and who also wind up killing two real police officers making their getaway. Anthony Quinn is the police captain in charge, but the case is given to Yaphet Kotto, a new black lieutenant that city hall wants to run the investigation. There is some conflict between the two, but the real question is who will find the killers first. At the same time the police are looking for them, mob gopher Anthony Franciosa is given the job of cleaning up the mess in Harlem, and he has his own parallel battle going on with the Harlem boss Richard Ward.
The secondary cast of the film is a real who’s who of prison movies. One of the fake cops is Paul Benjamin, who played English in Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz, while both Yaphet Kotto and Richard Ward appeared in Robert Redford’s Brubaker, which would be Ward’s last film. Benjamin is the real star of the picture and his struggle to escape a lifetime of limitations certainly elicits empathy. Playing the part of the getaway driver is Antonio Fargas who would achieve his greatest recognition for his portrayal of Huggy Bear in the Starsky and Hutch series. Gloria Hendry plays Benjamin’s girlfriend and does a good job at conveying strength and yet compassion for him. All of the supporting case, though relatively unknown, is equally good and this is one of the nice things about the film. The most interesting aspect of the film is the dependence of whites on their black underlings in both the police and the mob, especially in Harlem, and how the blacks are the de facto leaders and ultimately control things.
Anthony Quinn produced the film and stars as the aging captain who realizes he’s losing his job to Kotto. At the end of the day, however, this is really a crime drama and the film is probably more heavily influenced by In The Heat of the Night than the Blaxploitation films of the early seventies. Unfortunately Quinn and Kotto never really have the screen time to develop any type of relationship and so that aspect of the film seems rather forced. There is also the question of whether Quinn’s character is a racist, but there isn’t enough evidence to make that decision either. The other disappointment is that while J.J. Johnson’s score uses the right instrumentation, it is ultimately unmemorable. The undoing of the three men who made the score is very predictable but it still manages to hold attention, and the climax is unique enough that it makes Across 110th Street worth seeking out.