That’s Blaxploitation! 13: BLACK CAESAR (AIP 1973)

1972’s blockbuster smash THE GODFATHER began an onslaught of gangster movies released to your neighborhood theaters and drive-ins trying to capitalize on that film’s success. American-International Pictures was right in the thick of it, and since Blaxploitation was all the rage at the time, why not combine the two hottest genres? Producer/director/genius Larry Cohen already had a script written for Sammy Davis Jr., but when Sammy backed out, AIP Boss of Bosses Samuel Z. Arkoff signed Fred “The Hammer” Williamson to star as the Godfather of Harlem, BLACK CAESAR.

BLACK CAESAR is a semi-remake of the 1932 classic LITTLE CAESAR starring Edward G. Robinson, updated for the Blaxploitation/Grindhouse crowd and spun around on it’s head by Larry Cohen. You already know how much I enjoy Cohen’s work, and the auteur doesn’t fail to deliver the goods with this one. Casting the charismatic former NFL star Williamson was a bonus, and though not the greatest actor around, Fred had a macho screen presence that rivaled 70’s icons like Eastwood and Bronson, and was perfect for the part.

The film chronicles the rise and fall of Tommy Gibbs, from his days as a shoeshine boy/gangster’s little helper in the 50’s to the top of the crime heap. Along the way, he steals some secret ledgers containing the names of all NYC’s crooked politicians and cops, giving him enough leverage to take over. Tommy’s more ruthless than Vito Corleone, as he controls his turf with an almost non-stop orgy of violence that draws the ire of both the Mafia and the bent police, led by his old nemesis Commissoner McKinney (who gave young Tommy a brutal beating as a child). Tommy’s too big now, and McKinney sets him up for a fall using his ex-girlfriend Helen as bait to retrieve those ledgers.

The totally unhinged climax involves Tommy, McKinney, and a shoeshine box as a weapon of ass-whoopin’ destruction, a wild taxi ride after an assassination attempt on Tommy goes awry, and an ambiguous finish that leaves room for a sequel, HELL UP IN HARLEM (which I previously reviewed last year). Cohen is a master at hiding his budget limitations, with close-ups and lots of location footage on the streets of New York (one scene that drew a smile: a wounded Tommy passes a theater that happens to be showing THE GODFATHER!). He’s a great visual storyteller, and his off-the-hook style always holds your interest… or at least, mine!

The cast is loaded with familiar character actors: Art Lund as the racist cop McKinney, Val Avery as Mafia boss Cardoza, William Wellman Jr. as Tommy’s lawyer Coleman, Myrna Hansen as Coleman’s horny wife. Gloria Hendry, a   contender for the title Queen of Blaxploitation, plays Helen, and her LIVE AND LET DIE co-star Julius Harris is Tommy’s estranged father (who played a much larger role in the sequel). BLACK CAESAR features a score by a Godfather of another kind – James Brown, who sings the funky “Down and Out in New York City” over the opening credits. Hit it, James:

Cheers for THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (20th Century Fox 1973)

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The world of NASCAR racing takes center stage in THE LAST AMERICAN HERO, a fictionalized biopic of legendary driver Junior Johnson. But this isn’t just a film about stock cars; it’s an extraordinary character study of a young man from the backwoods of North Carolina who discovers himself and what’s important to him. Jeff Bridges is outstanding in his first full-fledged starring role, demonstrating at age 24 the acting chops that have carried him to a long and prosperous film career.

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Junior Jackson hauls moonshine for his Daddy on the winding backroads of  the Carolina hills, his tactics eluding the cops at every turn. He’s cocky and confident, and pisses the local law off so much they bust up Daddy’s still and send him back to prison. Junior decides to use his only marketable skill to raise money for the family while Daddy’s away – driving. He enters a demolition derby, using an illegal railroad tie to batter his opponents, and badgers promoter Hackel (Ned Beatty in another fine performance – why hasn’t this man ever won an Oscar???) into letting him enter a ten-lap preliminary race, which he wins.

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Junior knows how good he is, and his talents take him to the top of the sport, encountering along the way characters like stock car groupie Marge (Valerie Perrine) and macho driver Kyle Kingsman (a swaggering William Smith). But the center of his universe is his family. Daddy Jackson (Art Lund) doesn’t know any life other than making moonshine, and wants better for his son. When Junior expresses his desire to race, he tells his son, “Damn foolishness to one person is breath of life to another”. Mom (Geraldine Fitzgerald) worries about the dangers of the racing life, and brother Wayne (pre-stardom Gary Busey) is both antagonist and supporter, as most brothers are. The Jackson family isn’t portrayed as just a bunch of hillbilly moonshiners, but real flesh and blood people, and it’s refreshing to see.

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Director Lamont Johnson is another of those that had more success on television than film. He did eight TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, including the classics “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can”, and won Emmys for WALLENBERG: A HERO’S STORY and LINCOLN. His big screen output ranged from okay (YOU’LL LIKE MY MOTHER, CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES) to atrocious (LIPSTICK, SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE). THE LAST AMERICAN HERO is without question his finest feature. The exciting action on the oval is well captured by DP George Silano, and skillfully edited by the tandem of Robbe Roberts (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) and Tom Rolf (TAXI DRIVER, THE RIGHT STUFF). William Roberts (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ) based his screenplay on an Esquire Magazine article by Tom Wolfe.

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THE LAST AMERICAN HERO doesn’t make many critical discussions about great films of the 70’s, but I believe it deserves to be in the conversation. Not just another slice of Americana pie, it’s a well-constructed story expertly told, with exciting action, a great ensemble of actors, and a star turn by Jeff Bridges. It should be on your watch list. As a bonus, the movie’s theme is “I Got a Name” by the late, great Jim Croce, which didn’t even get an Oscar nomination, but should have (“The Way We Were” won that year), so to close this out, here’s Jim Croce:

 

 

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