Across 110th Street (Shear, 1972) and Never Die Alone (Dickerson, 2002)

Smack in the midst of the Blaxploitation and NYC cop-film era comes Barry Shear’s underrated Across 110th Street.  Featuring Yaphet Kotto – who never gets enough hype – and Anthony Quinn, Across 110th St is a film very much aware of its counterparts, but still able to carve out its own niche.

Directors like Jules Dassin and Don Siegel should be given a lot of credit for pre-dating the transcendent French Connection (1971) in the American to-the-streets cop canon, and Shear takes a cue from their playbooks, shooting A1S in a very flexible, available light style.  While A1S acknowledges the Blaxploitation films of the time – Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly staple Pusherman plays in the background at a bar – the world of pimps, hustlers and prostitutes is anything but glamorous here.  It’s early in Blaxploitation to be this critical of it, but Shear’s film doesn’t embrace the circle of violence.  The final image (see below) is a morose wish for what could have been, but seemingly is not close to being.

Paul Benjamin’s Jim Harris is the amateur criminal mastermind on the run, and he presents a rather complex character.  The opening scene – the heist of the NYC mob’s $300k – is violent and dispassionate as Jim aggressively guns down several gangsters (both black and white, as is noted throughout the film) and then two police officers.  Yet Jim is still presented in a most positive light.  We spend much of the film with him, witness an epilepsy attack, hear him tenderly promising his lover that they’ll take off to Jamaica, and see him ultimately throw the money he’s stolen to a group of children.  Cop killer and softy wrapped into one.

Kotto and Quinn play the black and white cops.  Where the young Kotto is earnest and hardworking, Quinn is a racist, underhanded alcoholic.  That they eventually work together is a minor victory for the future.

The final sequence is reminiscent of the great Dassin’s Night and the City or Siegel’s The Lineup closing scenes.  Cops and criminals all chase Jim across Harlem rooftops and Shear takes great care to frame the city behind the chase:

Some overheads give as much credence to the city as to the action itself, where the frame is divided here:

The cops blending into the city, which overwhelms them (and their investigation):

The climactic moment – the battling parties are tiny dots in the huge landscape.  It’s very Concrete Jungle-like:

And then there’s that ending shot, which freeze frames with less of a question mark than The 400 Blows or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  It begins with Kotto and Quinn’s hands clasped together, a poster-board symbol for racial unity:

-and then freezes as Quinn’s hand slips free, leaving both men grasping at air:

The end frame, the point Shear chooses the close the film, is a few seconds away from optimism.  Were the credits to roll over the two men hand-in-hand we’d be pointing to a much less bleak future for NYC melting pot relations.  Instead, that extra inch looks considerably less enthusiastic.

Never Die Alone

Ernest Dickerson came to the public’s attention with an important entry in the cycle of early-90s hood films, with 1992’s Juice starring Tupac Shakur.  In the midst of the better known Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City, Juice (also featuring a young Omar Epps) was remarkable for its coming-of-age narrative that played off of Tupac’s persona.

10 years later Dickerson directs another rapper – this time DMX – in the accessible Never Die Alone.  Many of the better hood films deserved their reputation for a new look at inner-city crime, racial relations, and young gun violence.  Never Die Alone doesn’t really break any new ground, nor does it court any of the same kind of controversy that Dickerson and company’s earlier films did, but it’s surprisingly personal at times.

The narrative takes the form of flashbacks via King David’s (DMX) dictated autobiographical cassette tapes.  When struggling author Paul (a serviceable David Arquette) finds the tapes, he gets caught up in a complex revenge war…while possibly finding the material to break out of the writer’s block doldrums.

James Gibson’s script (based off of Donald Goines’s novel) gives DMX some really hilarious one-liners.  My favorite: “They say revenge is a dish best served cold.  Well I was about to take my sh*t out of the motherf*cking freezer!”  The line is made even more awesome when delivered in DMX’s trademark drawl and bark.

While the narrative hits many of the requisite drug-lord tropes, and the pacing  falters in its crosscut look at multiple characters, there’s still a nice thread of regret and – again – coming-of-age.  An ending twist isn’t entirely unseen, but it does add a hint of additional weight to both DMX’s David and Michael Ealy’s character, Michael (whose performance and character arc very much remins me of a truncated version of that of Tristan Wilds from The Wire).  There’s a flashback structure in here that reveals both a sadistic and penitential side for David.

Dickerson’s style feels a bit outdated at times – the dive into the world of crime could be pulled from a pulpy nightmare rather than any concrete reality – and there are a few suspension of disbelief moments (Paul really sobers up quickly), but the film has a heart and a purpose.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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