Classic Soul Cinema Presents: ‘Across 110th Street’

Across 110th Street movie posterThe classic crime drama Across 110th Street, based on the novel by Wally Ferris, starred Anthony Quinn, Yaphett Kotto and Anthony Franciosa, and was directed by Barry Shear. The film, released in December 1972, came out during the height of the blaxploitation era and is heralded by many for its grittiness and honesty.

Set in Harlem, the film centers on a black lieutenant, William Pope (Kotto), who works strictly by-the-book, and who is aligned with the corrupt, crude, racist but streetwise Italian American Captain Frank Mattelli (Quinn) in the NYPD’s 27th precinct. They are on the lookout for three black men who killed seven men, three black gangsters, two Italian gangsters, as well as two patrol officers, in the robbery of $300,000 from a Mafia-owned Harlem policy bank. The heart line of the film is the question of whether the mafia or the police will catch the robbers first.

The police urgently try to find the suspects before the sadistic Mafia henchman Nick D’Salvio (Franciosa), an aging small time mobster hungry for power, finds them.

The film’s other main compelling focus is the fiery battle of wits between Lieutenant Pope and Captain Mattelli. Pope wants to handle the situation honestly and by the law but the older Mattelli wants to handle it by any means necessary.

Ultimately, two of the robbers are found with the exception of Jim Harris (played brilliantly by Paul Benjamin) who suffers from epilepsy and makes a choice near the end that winds up in a deadly emotional climax.

The strong cast effectively handles the nature of the film with candid rawness and depth. Some of the scenes were a bit disturbing to some theatergoers, particularly one violent scene in which D’Salvio finds getaway driver Henry J. Jackson (played by iconic actor Antonio Fargas), brutalizes him in a Harlem whorehouse, and has him castrated.

The movie was shot on location in Harlem and the various subplots and tightly edited action scenes are woven together stylistically through a combination of location shooting and mobile, often handheld camerawork capturing the grimy, claustrophobic feel of the story.

The movie was further enhanced by an excellent soundtrack by soul music legend Bobby Womack. All of the film’s songs were written and performed by Womack, while the score was composed and conducted by J.J. Johnson. Taking a cue from Isaac Hayes, whose Shaft soundtrack was enormously popular, many artists began doing scores for blaxploitation films. Womack’s score did very well, making it to up to number six on the soul charts and number 50 on the pop charts.  The film’s critically-praised title track was also a huge success and was used years later in Quentin Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown as well as in Ridley Scott’s film American Gangster.

The film earned an estimated $10 million at the box office by 1973.

Across 110th Street brilliantly handles racial tensions and corruption in the police department while  succeeding as both a social drama and an intense police thriller.

– Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, former Soul Train dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian.

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