This gritty crime picture crams a dizzying number of characters, storylines, and themes into 102 frenetic minutes. Ostensibly a police thriller about two mismatched detectives investigating a Mafia-related shooting in Harlem, the racially charged movie also devotes considerable screen time to infighting among criminals. Based on a novel by Wally Ferris and written for the screen by Luther Davis, the film does a great job of taking viewers inside the minds of hoodlums, thereby conveying a morally gray picture of life in the big city. However, because the detectives are the lead characters, the potential impact of this humanistic approach to criminality is dulled—it’s hard for viewers to know whether they’re being asked to root for the heroes, the villains, both, or neither. In short, Across 110th Street has great texture but lacks a clear point of view.
When the movie begins, black street crooks deliver a cash payoff to white Mafia lieutenants in a dingy Harlem apartment. Then uniformed police offers “raid” the apartment—but it turns out the cops are robbers in disguise. The theft goes smoothly until a crook reaches for a gun, at which point the lead robber, Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), gets trigger-happy. Jim and his two partners, Joe (Ed Bernard) and Henry (Antonio Fargas), escape with the Mafia’s cash, leaving a pile of bodies behind.
Two factions respond to the incident. The first is the Mob, represented by Nick D’Salvo (Anthony Franciosa), a godfather-in-waiting who’s reached middle age without proving himself; Nick becomes obsessed with killing the robbers in order elevate his standing. Also responding is the NYPD, specifically a veteran white cop named Capt. Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) and a younger black cop named Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto). Mattelli wants to handle the investigation his usual way (abuse informants until secrets are spilled), but Pope—who is given jurisdiction over the case for political reasons—wants to exercise post-Miranda Act restraint.
The most interesting material in this overstuffed movie concerns the disintegrating relationships between the robbers, who react in varied ways as pressure mounts for their capture. Benjamin commands the movie with a jittery, raging performance as a black man robbed of life choices by hard circumstance, so whenever he’s onscreen, the movie sizzles. And even when the storyline meanders, director Barry Shear and cinematographer Jack Priestley create a vivid sense of place with the use of grungy locations and verité-style shooting on New York streets. Across 110th Street is a mess, but it’s an interesting mess.
Across 110th Street: FUNKY