I love movies that have great title sequences. Sometimes you just get a great mix of music and visuals that perfectly set the stage for what is to come. One of my favorites from recent years is the opening of Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.” In that sequence I especially love the use of Bobby Womack’s title song from the 1972 film “Across 110th Street.” I’ll bet many cinephiles know the song from Tarantino’s film but have not sought out the movie it originated from.
The film opens with a nasty crime. Three African Americans, Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), Joe Logart (Ed Bernard), and Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas…yep Huggybear) rob $300,000 from some mob goons working with some black gangsters. When one of the mobsters tries to grab a gun, Harris opens fire. When all is said and done, seven people lay dead…three black gangsters, two wiseguys (including Burt Young), and two cops.
Captain Frank Matelli (Anthony Quinn) is quick to show up on the scene to take control. But he is surprised to find out that for political reasons, a young black detective, William Pope (Yaphet Kotto), has been put in charge of the investigation. Though Matelli definitely has some racist attitudes, he does what he can to aid Pope, but the two regularly clash over Matelli’s at times shady investigation methods.
Of course, the mob sets out to send a clear message to Harlem that this will not stand. Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), a son-in-law to a big mob boss, is sent out to exact revenge and get back the money. He enlists Harlem gangster Doc Johnson (Richard Ward) and his men to help him find the men who pulled the job. As it turns out, Matelli has occasionally taken hush money from Doc Johnson.
D’Salvio gradually tracks down Jackson and then Logart and takes sadistic glee in making sure they are taught the ultimate lesson. Meanwhile, as the investigation progresses, Matelli begins to see that he is on the way out both in the eyes of his superiors on the force and in the eyes of the gangsters who have paid him in the past. It is thanks to a tip from Johson that Pope learns the location of Harris, leading to a bloody final confrontation.
“Across 110th Street” is often labeled a “Blaxploitation” film, but that’s not really fair. This is a gritty and complex film spearheaded by some great performances. Anthony Quinn is the standout as the aging cop seeing his usefulness fade away. Kotto is also great as the by-the-book young detective. He is man of few words, but in his eyes you can see not only his disgust for Matelli, but also the legitimate fear that he is doomed to become him.
The bad guys are pretty compelling as well. Anthony Franciosa’s performance is appropriately unhinged. Even his goons are repulsed by his extreme methods of revenge. Also great is the gravely-voiced Richard Ward who comes off as a sort of puppet master over the whole affair, working both the mob and the cops so he comes out on top.
This is a beautifully made film, yet there is absolutely nothing pretty about it. It is a violent film, certainly not a graphic as some films are today but still disturbing. It also doesn’t exactly present the big apple as the tourism office would like. It paints a picture of New York as a land of fear…completely devoid of hope. It may not be a pretty film, but it is powerful and original, even 40 years after its release.