Friday, September 18, 2015

The Hitter (1979)



          Produced well after the blaxploitation genre had lost its momentum, this low-budget drama/thriller resolves into a solid action piece toward the end of its running time. Getting to the final act requires patience, because the picture starts out as a flimsy blaxploitation riff on the Paul Newman classic The Hustler (1961). Then cowriter/director Christopher Leitch gets stuck in a bad groove during an extended sex-comedy sequence that not only feels like it belongs in another movie, but quickly wears out its welcome. Despite these problems, The Hitter has strengths, notably Adolph Caesar’s authoritative performance as an aging schemer. It’s not saying much to indicate that Caesar is more impressive than the film’s leading man, Superfly guy Ron O’Neal, but it’s a compliment to Caesar’s work that he seems to elevate O’Neal by providing a formidable scene partner.
          Echoing the beginning of The Hustler, this picture opens with cocky drifter Otis (O’Neal) showing up in a pool hall owned by Louisiana Slim (Bill Cobbs), a ruthless crime boss. Otis defeats Louisiana Slim in a pool game, and the humiliated gangster swears revenge. Otis flees the pool hall and encounters Nathan (Caesar), a down-on-his-luck fellow with a fast mouth and a million ideas for money-making scams. The focus of the picture then shifts rather awkwardly from billiards to boxing, because once Nathan discovers that Otis used to be a pro fighter, he volunteers to manage Otis in a series of illegal street fights. This starts the countdown to an inevitable showdown with Louisiana Slim, who also manages fighters. In the movie’s dodgiest sequence, Nathan takes Otis to a cathouse and makes a bet that the two men can each service three women in less than 30 minutes. The Nathan component of the sequence is mildly amusing, but the Otis component comprises sleazy shots of naked starlets grinding against O’Neal and moaning to the accompaniment of the film’s zesty funk/jazz soundtrack. During the cathouse sequence, Otis falls for working girl Lola (Sheila Frazier). Predictably, she’s Louisiana Slim’s girlfriend, so when she runs off with Nathan and Otis, her departure adds to Louisiana Slim’s ire.
          Nothing in The Hitter is surprising, but the supporting actors give such lively performances that the movie isn’t a bad ride, especially once things get heavy. And if nothing else, The Hitter reaffirms that Hollywood missed out by failing to find a niche for Caesar until very late in his short life. After The Hitter, he didn’t make another movie until the racially themed A Soldier’s Story (1984). Caesar’s work in A Soldier’s Story earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, leading to a flurry of steady work before he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1986.

The Hitter: FUNKY

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