Thursday, June 16, 2011

Black Caesar (1973) & Hell Up in Harlem (1973)

          Some of the most entertaining blaxploitation flicks inserted predominantly African-American casts into classic Hollywood genres, resulting in exciting cross-cultural friction. Black Caesar is one such picture, because pulp auteur Larry Cohen’s quickie crime drama offers a downtown spin on the classic Warner Bros. gangster flick. Fred Williamson, the cocky ex-football player who became one of blaxploitation’s most charismatic stars, plays Tommy Gibbs, a Harlem kid with good reasons for questioning authority: When he was young, Tommy was beaten half to death by a corrupt cop, McKinney (Art Lund). So after completing a long stretch in juvie, Tommy gets right to work building his underworld résumé.
          He whacks a mobster who’s been targeted for assassination, then uses that credential to muscle his way into the closed shop of the New York mafia. The movie’s stereotypical greasy Italian types are wary of getting in business with a black man, and sure enough Tommy ruthlessly squeezes out his local godfather in order to become a big boss. Then Tommy nabs incriminating ledgers detailing years of bribes to city officials, thus ensuring police won’t touch his burgeoning operation. In the classic gangster-movie tradition, everything Tommy does to improve his stature puts him in greater danger, and he also runs into domestic trouble when his wife, Helen (Gloria Hendry), starts fooling around with his best friend, Joe (Philip Roye).
          Though everything that happens in Black Caesar is clichéd and predictable, the movie works because it’s so energetic. Cohen’s run-and-gun style creates gritty excitement, since it’s clear he “stole” most of his shots while onlookers tried to figure out what the hell was happening. Furthermore, Williamson has so much swagger that it’s easy to buy him climbing the gangland ladder, and the score by R&B legend James Brown is fantastic, featuring standout cuts like “The Boss” and “Down and Out in New York City.” The filmmaking isn’t pretty, but the style suits the material.
          The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the rushed sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, which hit screens just 11 months after Black Caesar was released. Though Hell Up in Harlem has an interesting central idea—after Tommy’s estranged father helps his son out of the jam Tommy was in at the end of the first picture, Papa Gibbs gets delusions of grandeur and tries to squeeze Tommy out of his own operation—the storytelling is disjointed and repetitive. Filled with endless montages of people getting whacked in gory detail, the movie feels incomplete, as if huge swaths of important footage are missing, and sloppily dubbed off-screen dialogue is used (ineffectively) to bridge narrative gaps. Some of the murders are entertaining from a camp perspective, like the scene of Tommy impaling a gangster with a beach umbrella, but a lengthy subplot about Tommy’s children being taken away from their mother is confusing and grim. Kudos to Cohen for striking while the iron was hot, but in rushing to meet marketplace demand, he killed any appetite for future Tommy Gibbs adventures.

Black Caesar: FUNKY
Hell Up in Harlem: LAME

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