Monday, February 20, 2012
59. ACROSS 110th STREET (1972)
Nothing I'd ever heard about ACROSS 110th STREET prepared me for a film that cuts through race to say something true about the dreams we all live with and the goals we set for ourselves to make life bearable. All of its principal characters share something crucial in common with the principal characters of JACKIE BROWN: they can feel the dancefloor shrinking under their feet, they're getting older, and they realize that the time to make a grab for the brass ring had better be now, if they're ever going to do it. ACROSS 110th STREET is about three black working stiffs (Paul Benjamin, Ed Bernard, Antonio Fargas) who pose as cops to rip off $300,000 from an apartment where it's being counted before being turned over to the Mob boss running Harlem. They're all 40-something and impoverished, living in tenements with rats and roaches, where flushed toilets back up into their sinks, with their stoic women and their shared dreams; Benjamin's character is also saddled with epilepsy.
But as Jean Renoir wrote in THE RULES OF THE GAME, "The real hell of life is that everyone has their reasons," and it's equally important for Nick D'Salvio (an uncommonly vicious Anthony Franciosa), as a 45 year old lapdog to crime boss Don Gennaro (Frank Macetta) who's been allowed to take it easy for too long, to recover that money and thus live up to the old man's expectation that he can "take care of" this problem. Yet even his dreams are trumped by those of police captain Matelli (Anthony Quinn), who at age 55 feels the tightening noose of retirement and craves one last chance to either redeem himself for a career of corruption or to simultaneously punish and glorify himself with an apparent hero's death. And then there's Lt. Kotto (Yaphet Kotto), younger and more principled than the higher-ranking Matelli, who is placed in charge of the case because he's black and lives for the opportunity to advance in his job because of the man he is rather than for the color he is. As it happens, all of their dreams begin to unravel when the heist driver Jackson (Fargas) cannot resist celebrating his success by living his dream by flashing his newfound wealth around similarly disadvantaged friends and hookers who want a piece of the pie for themselves -- $100, a dream to them which is in fact just a remaining morsel of a $5,000 bounty nibbled down to almost nothing by the middle men spreading the word.
This theme of time-sensitivity becomes all the more meaningful when we appreciate that it was scripted by Luther Davis (himself 55 at the time, working from Wally Ferris' novel ACROSS 110th), and that it was directed by Barry Shear at the age of 49, when the milestone age of 50 must have been dangling in front of his own ability to dream like an admonition to slow down. Shear's directorial feat with this film becomes doubly meaningful when we realize that he died in 1979 at the age of 56, and that his seven remaining years were spent almost entirely toiling in the trenches of television; he would make only one more theatrical feature but it probably wasn't a happy experience for him, in that THE DEADLY TRACKERS required him to take the directorial seat away from a man he must have admired: Samuel Fuller. But with ACROSS 110th STREET, whether or not he ever knew it, Shear realized a dream he shared with countless others who never got as close: he made a legitimately great American movie.
Viewed on Netflix.