Across 110th Street

by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue

Across 110th Street (1972) is an ensemble film that manages to use what little time it has with its many characters to maximum effect, due probably in no small part to a lot of great lines delivered just right by a lot of great actors, and due also to just good fucking film making, getting the right shots and putting them together right. I’ve watched it numerous times, and upon each viewing, I notice something new, a new expression on a character’s face in a split-second shot where they’re reacting to something.

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It’s a heist film where the heist is the first scene and the guys trying to catch the perpetrators are as important to the story as the perpetrators, themselves. The caper in question involves robbing the Harlem rackets as they count out their take for the purpose of paying tribute to the Italian mob. It results in the shooting deaths of Harlem gangsters, Little Italy gangsters, and cops. Survivors of all three tribes scour Harlem for the killers.

Across 110th Street contains so many strong characters with strong drives, a lot of it simple enough, but it all fits together so well in this story about people fighting tooth and nail for things just beyond their reach, or things they have but must fight to keep, respect, position, a pension, a better life, or maybe just plain money in the pocket. However much this film may walk the line between seventies action land and straight-up gritty realism, it tends toward the latter and what it does not do is promise the audience an easy solution to the shit-show it portrays.

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Another thing Across 110th Street does not do is use violence to make its audience feel better. It uses violence to unsettle. There is really no one to root for (a pet peeve of mine is when this sentence is used as a criticism rather than a selling point) in the conventional sense.

This latest viewing, I found myself rooting for the arguably psychotic Jim Harris, played by Paul Benjamin. Anthony Quinn is sympathetic in his desperate vulnerability as a dinosaur cop who knows his days are numbered (“So what am I supposed to do ’cause I’m 55, eat shit?”), as is Yaphet Kotto as a guy trying to legitimately earn respect in a white man’s NYPD. Anthony Franciosa, whose sadistic racist bastard of a mafioso character is the closest thing the film has to a villain, is still also playing a guy who is overcompensating because he’s the mob boss’s son-in-law and he knows everyone is watching to see if he’s got anything below his belt.

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This film is filled with great performances, great scenes, great characters. A few of the actors were stars, or at least well-known character actors (Quinn, Kotto, Antonio Fargas, Burt Young), but a lot of them never showed up in anything else I liked this much. The music by Bobby Womack and JJ Johnson is as gritty seventies action movie as music gets. The location photography is great.

The ending may seem heavy-handed or pretentious in another film, but works fine for me here, mainly, I think, because what the final image symbolically portrays is looked at in the film from so many different angles. Across 110th Street has become as important to me as New York cinema of its era as Taxi Driver, Fingers, or just about anything else.

– The Acolyte