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: