Across 110th Street (Barry Shear, 1972) & The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)
Next up in my viewings as part of the online class I’m taking on films neo-noir — even if the films are often more like quasi neo-noir with our adventurous prof being more than a bit liberal in his definition on what exactly makes up a neo-noir (then again, has there ever been an exact agreement on what exactly constitutes noir, let alone neo-noir… and if that fuzziness leads to re-watching and discussing great films like John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, what’s to complain about?) – was a couple more under-appreciated gems (then again, maybe in the case of the understated “Eddie Coyle”, it’s kinda fitting that this film about characters looking to deliberately exist on the margins also literally exists on the margins). While linked by settings within the tension-laden power structure of criminals and corrupt cops, with the potential for violence and betrayal swirling about them, in execution the films are – something our prof has been doing well with these near-weekly double features he’s been throwing at us – pretty, pretty, pretty different in their approaches.
Across 110th Street starts with a bungled Harlem heist, with three low-rent street criminals disguised as police officers shooting up a slew of gangsters and actual cops alike, as they rob a bundle of mob-owned cash, with this explosive intro expanding out to include the investigating cops and each of the criminal overlords (from both the white and black sides – with 110th Street being the long-understood racial divide of those two worlds) doing their damnedest to get to these guys first.
With the always hamming-it-up Anthony Franciosa (I may forever love the guy for Dario Argento’s coldly violent and stylish Tenebrae, he’s never been an actor exactly exuding depth and complexity… ) as a race-baiting smarmy mafia man the (black) audience is just meant to hate (and to applaud the violent comeuppance of that we just know is coming), splashily bloody set-pieces (and there are some startlingly rough ones), largely black cast (which includes the ubiquitous Antonio Fargas as his usual bug-eyed energizer bunny of the jive talking set, a character bordering-on-a-modern-Step n’ Fetchit, yet carried by an actor who miraculously always imbues the familiar part with a level of dignity – and who managed to secure his everlasting place in American television lore as the lovable street rogue Huggy Bear, informant to two cop buds Starsky and Hutch in the iconic 70’s cop show of the same name that I grew up on, in that exciting innocent time when gritty violence – though now tame by today’s comparisons — was being introduced with regularity into prime time television to the outrage of all sorts of groups) and a funk-driven theme song (probably the most well-remembered part of this film, considering Tarantino would re-purpose it for the opening credits of Jackie Brown), Across 110th Street has all the proper street cred to comfortably slot right in there with the blaxploitation genre… but where it adds to (rather than separates it from, which was what just about everyone in my class during the discussion period was trying to do, as they clearly thought of themselves as too ‘highbrow’ to admit they enjoyed a film that could be deemed blaxploitation, even as the intelligentsia-approved category of neo-noir was fine — phfft – silly gibbled elitists) is the level of complexity with which it deals with the characters, black and white (other than the Franciosa one – though even there, the film does give quick glimpses to show just how uncomfortable his bodyguards are carrying out his racist brutality), as well as the sobering way with which it delves directly into its chosen themes on social struggle and race across an admirably large tapestry of New York (for a low budget film, it’s epic in scale, with an oft-roving handheld camera that captures a lot of the feel of 70’s New York – it’s like blaxploitation by Sydney Lumet – well, a Lumet at the top of his game that is, which wasn’t always the case… but, man, when he was!).
“110th Street” is chock full of explosive performances (all deepened by the thoughtful script). While Anthony Quinn stands out, carrying a deeply complex performance as the bitter, racist and world-weary Captain Mattelli, resentful that he’s being kicked out the door to make room for the younger, more ‘identifiable’ Lieutenant Pope – played by 70’s fave Yaphet Koto, carrying a strong moral pose in a role that requires less – the real intensity-laden discovery of the film has to be Paul Benjamin’s seethingly righteous, violent leader of the ill-fated robbers, an epilepsy-ridden proud black man refusing to be beat down by the poverty and oppression that has ruled his life… and whether that means his escape requires murder, or his own death, he’s not looking back. The powerful close-ups on his twitching face are startling in their bold intensity, somehow managing (like the film) to never tip over into being broad. And for a film this large in scope, the number of tightly captured scenes of barely-repressed emotion are phenomenal, with soliloquys delivered at times giving the film the colorful flavor of a stage play (not surprising considering the screenwriter, Luther Davis, was a respected and award winning playwright).
While racial tensions are a huge thematic concern for Across 110th Street, with a story taking place amongst the various racially-divided criminal forces fighting it out for power over the burned-out war zone of black Harlem during perhaps that neighborhood’s bleakest period, the racism revealed amongst the characters shifting about in the criminal underbelly of the all-white terrain of Boston in Eddie Coyle is presented as something more casual; a part of a culture (and if you don’t believe that’s a true representation, you might ask about every black professional athlete who has ever staked a claim in that town).
While “110th Street” is vibrantly shot, filled with action and intensity (and I’m talking even the quiet scenes), director Peter Yates, an exceptional journeyman director, comes at The Friends of Eddie Coyle from a much more deliberately low key perspective… and, man, what a discovery this film was for me.
Trusted film compadres (especially those who lean towards the crime/neo-noir side of the cinematic landscape) have been pushing me to see “Eddie Coyle” for years, and, man, what a fool for waiting this long. While I’ve always been a huge fan of rugged noir man’s man Robert Mitchum, a chiaroscuro-laden figure of some of the greatest from that genre (Out of the Past anyone?), but seeing him presented in this more naturalistic style akin to many a film 70’s, as the tussled and aging small-time gun-running crook Eddie Coyle (hell, we actually see him taking the garbage out to the street outside his small Queens-like home before kissing his kids goodbye as they get on the school bus!) is pure revelation.
The opening scene of Mitchum’s Coyle meeting up with a young part-time gun seller (Steven Keats, one of the many welcome familiar character actor faces dotting the small-time criminal underworld, looking as seedy and unglamorous as the whole coterie of them do) delivering a colorfully menacing speech to the slightly too laidback gun seller, displaying the ‘extra knuckles’ that were added to his fingers as punishment for once getting lazy and caught, by having them brutally crushed in a dresser drawer, is just the first of wonderfully delivered moment the film (and Mitchum) relishes in… creating just the kind of ‘constructed’ reality that would act as direct inspiration for the later masterful and trendsetting works of one Quentin Tarantino (and if you need proof, look no further than the Keats character in this film being named Jackie Brown!).
While the execution may be determinedly understated, there’s tons of gripping tension to be found. The on-going series of bank heists, led by Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco, another familiar face well-placed in the drama), with guns for each job secured by Coyle, that form a continuing spine for the film, manage to be masterful in execution even with mostly no overtly cinematic splashes, with the robbers consistently holding out the threat of real violence, while acting with a steel professional calm, repeating all throughout a kind of droning mantra that remains scary and tension-building nonetheless – ‘Do what you’re told and no one will get hurt’ (until the moment things go wrong that is). And the see-through masks the thieves use, ones that don’t hide their faces as much as alter their features, are just perfect (man, I know my get-up if I ever get around to robbing a bank!).
Coyle’s ‘friends’ (ironically named as such, as anyone can be forced to spill the beans and betray anyone in a world where self-preservation –- and a possible way out of jail -– dictates giving information to the shady cops looking to make splashy collars) are made up by the likes of the great Peter Boyle, the aforementioned Rocco and a bunch more. It was kinda amazing to see the usually handsome (or at the very least properly quaffed for the Hollywood screen!) Richard Jordan presented with such undisguised pale and pimply-faced complexion, with his black hair looking positively greasy, mirroring the kind of gross and shady cop character he plays in the movie. If he’s a good guy, give me Mitchum’s bad guy any day of the week.
Both films end on the tragic death of main characters (and fitting to each, “110th Street” does it in grandiose somewhat heavy-handed slow-motion, with the final image near bludgeoning us with its message, while “Coyle” is much more – deliberately — matter-of-fact, with the death of its small time crook nothing but a minor event, to be swept under the rug and forgotten – by ‘friends’ and cops alike – as soon as possible).
Across 110th Street and The Friends of Eddie Coyle are startlingly bleak crime films, but they also share a deeply humanistic bent, following alienated and underdog criminal anti-heroes struggling to survive against an indifferent and corrupt system above.
Great stuff. Cool double feature. Thanks, Prof.