Although it is often lumped in with the Blaxploitation boom of the early 70s, Across 110th Street is actually a gritty cop flick with a strong element of social commentary.
Undeniably stylish, with superb location photography and well-staged action sequences, the film has deservedly attained a cult status.
Captain Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn), a corrupt old white cop, and Lieutenant Pope (Yaphet Kotto), an honest young black cop, are chasing three black men who ran away with $300,000 that belonged to the mob, machine-gunning seven people in the process.
The police must find them before the sadistic Mafia henchman Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) reaches them first.
110th Street is the frontier between the Mafia’s area of operations in New York, and that of a black gang run by a fierce thug by the name of Doc Johnson (Richard Ward).
Franciosa makes a frighteningly vivid impression as the aging small-time mobster whose hunger for power drives him to psychotic brutality in his pursuit of the three hapless thieves.
The getaway driver Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas) goes on a bender at a local brothel, advertising that he suddenly has money. Soulful ex-con Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) realises that it’s time to run, and tips off the machine gun-toting Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin) and Jim’s girl Gloria Roberts (Norma Donaldson).
Each has an escape plan but both the cops and the hoods are closing in on them.
One is tortured by the Mafia and has his arm broken before being hung by his feet from twenty floors up. Another luckless thief dies screaming in an ambulance, where it looks like his face has been cut apart and his eyes gouged out. We later learn that the man was castrated and crucified alive.
The third crook puts up a good fight with his machine gun, decimating his tormentors and giving the audience the action finale they came for.
Scenes of Kotto and Quinn grappling over issues of racism and corruption in the police department are just as important to the film as the central story line of the mafia chasing the thieves, and Barry Shear’s atmospheric direction weaves the many subplots together in a skilful fashion and effectively captures the grimy, claustrophobic feel of the story through a combination of nice location shooting (filmed in the notorious Harlem district of New York) and mobile, often handheld camera work.
Finally, the film’s tough but emotional style is sealed by a bittersweet soul score from Bobby Womack.
Anthony Quinn’s career wasn’t doing well at this point and his fatigue in the film looks genuine. But for a 55-year-old guy whose face looks even older, he hustles up and down those fire escapes pretty well.
25 years later, Quentin Tarantino chose this film’s title song to open and close Jackie Brown (1997), his extended homage to the Blaxploitation crime flick genre of the 1970s.
Capt. Frank Mattelli
Detective Lt. Pope