Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cleopatra Jones (1973)

Director: Jack Starrett                                     Writers: Max Julien & Sheldon Keller
Film Score: J.J. Johnson                                 Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Starring: Tamara Dobson, Bernie Casey, Shelley Winters and Albert Popwell

I freely admit that I have a bias toward seventies films. Having grown up at the time, they instantly transport me back to my childhood and make me feel great. But it’s not just childhood associations that make them so fun, as even films I never saw back then are equally enjoyable. Blaxploitation is a case in point. Having grown up in a small rural town out west they didn’t show black films in the local theater, and as a result of this racism I didn’t have the opportunity to watch these films until much later in life. Shaft, Superfly, and Coffey were all wonderful discoveries for me. In watching later entries, however, I soon realized that it didn’t take long for the genre to devolve into camp. Cleopatra Jones is just one example. Shelley Winters’ over the top performance as Mama, complete with red--and I’m not talking carrot-colored here but fire engine red--wig is a scenery chewing delight.

Tamara Dobson plays the title character, a United States special agent working overseas to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the urban centers. Shelley Winters is the drug kingpin who is suffering from the embargo and wants Dobson stopped. To get her back, Winters engineers a bust on a halfway house that Dobson runs with Bernie Casey, planting drugs on residents and destroying the property. Dobson hops the next plane home, takes out two of the assassins at the airport and begins throwing down the gauntlet to stop Winter’s campaign against her. But first she must dodge several more assassination attempts, including a chase along the concrete banks of the L.A. river before it became a cliché in films. Working as she must, within the law, her investigation leads slowly and inexorably toward the exposure of the police mole as well as a wonderful showdown with Winters.

The statuesque Dobson had to be selected for the roll partially because of her height, six foot two without heels, and she towers over her costars. All but Bernie Casey, that is. He’s the perfect man for her, strong and intense and angry. Some great character actors from the time are also present. Bill McKinney plays a redneck cop who is in the pay of Winters, and the distinctive Joe Tornatore is one of her hit men. Antonio Fargas is one of Winter’s dealers in the city who decides to leave her and go on his own, while Teddy Wilson is his right hand man. Michael Warren has a small part as a mechanic. The great Esther Rolle runs a restaurant in the old neighborhood and, one of my favorite actors Albert Popwell, has a bit part as one of her sons. The acting is average for the time meaning a bit overlarge, and while Dobson’s hand to hand combat skills pale next to someone like Pam Grier, it’s good enough. The L.A. setting is strange, however, seeing as most films of this type typically play in New York, but it was no doubt cheaper to do it near the studio and for the most part that works too.

Director Jack Starrett was mostly known as an actor, but also directed several low budget film and numerous episodes for television series. And it does feel a bit like a television show, but so did a lot of films in the seventies. And he does a nice job here, providing all of the set pieces for a film of this type, sex, violence and car chases. One of the terrific aspects of the film is the locations. They all work really well and help the film rise above the standard fare of the day. Jazz great J.J. Johnson wrote the soundtrack and, while it’s a bit anonymous, it’s still better than his work on Across 110th Street or Willie Dynamite. All in all, Cleopatra Jones is a solid Blaxploitation film and what it lacks in originality it makes up for in studio polish and pure seventies fun.

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