WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Edge Moves Across 110th Street)

Across 110th Street (1972)
Director: Barry Shear

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Like a lot of people my age or younger, the first I heard of Across 110th Street was in Greil Marcus’  Sly Stone chapter in Mystery Train. And, although I’ve owned Bobby Womack’s haunting title song on a handful of comps over the years, it took me until last night to see the film.

I haven’t been avoiding it. Marcus made it sound like it was worth seeing and, until his obsession with punk came along, I usually found his recommendations worth tracking down (still do, when his obsession with punk doesn’t get in the way). It just never cycled to the top of the list.

It’s a strange kind of blaxploitation film, so strange I’m not sure it even fits the genre, strictly speaking. I’m no expert. Except for the Shaft films and Superfly (all enjoyable on a spaghetti western level) I’m clueless. With the local video stores out of business and me at least as allergic to streaming as I ever was to video games I’m likely to remain so.

But I’m glad I finally caught up with this one. I don’t know where it stands in blaxploitation but it’s a great gangster film, on a level with the original Scarface and White Heat at the top of the American heap. (Once more for the record, I’m no great fan of the Godfather movies. Though I admire the enormous skill with which they were made, I’m not really interested in seeing psychopaths being anything but offed, which I guess means I’m the rare person who has seen the films and wished the body count was higher.)

The body count in Across 110th Street isn’t just high, it’s personal. The “edgy” or “extreme” or “gory” violence which impressed Marcus, Leonard Maltin and pretty much everybody else in 1972 no longer stings. As I’ve occasionally noted before, that’s the problem with the edge. It keeps moving. Today’s stomach-churner is tomorrow’s yawn.

But this one strikes home anyway, because it’s mixed up with people and their dreams. Those dreams are crystallized in a single scene. The three black men who ripped off the mob to start the plot rolling have been hunted down one by one, each tortured until he gives up the others. The remaining survivor goes on the lam and heads back to his hold neighborhood, which is abandoned.

The journey only takes a few seconds of screen-time and most of it looks like this:

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That’s when the film’s underlying question comes into focus.

Just what would you do, to escape from this?

The man in the picture racks up a body count that is somewhere north of a dozen, with mobsters and cops falling in about equal measure.

He doesn’t make it. But he leaves the world with something you would have bet a million souls he couldn’t possibly possess in the film’s opening sequence. Call it Honor and, however curiously achieved, it’s by no means certain anyone left standing can make a similar claim.

The whole movie is exciting, in step with its own time and with ours. But it’s anchored in that single image. Without it, for all its other fine elements, including superb performances all around, it would just be cops and robbers, well orchestrated and ultimately empty.

With it, it has what you might call an extremely rare kind of seventies’ edge.

It still cuts.