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:

That’s Blaxploitation! 10: HELL UP IN HARLEM (AIP 1973)

I’ve covered producer/writer/director Larry Cohen’s marvelously manic work in the horror genre ( IT’S ALIVE! , GOD TOLD ME TO ), but did you know the low-budget auteur also contributed some solid entries to the Blaxploitation field? Cohen’s gangster epic BLACK CAESAR starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and was such a smash a sequel was rushed into production and released ten months later. HELL UP IN HARLEM picks up right where the original left off, as ‘Black Caesar’ Tommy Gibbs is set up by corrupt DA DiAngelo and shot on the streets of New York City. Tommy has possession of some ledgers with the names of all the crooked politicians and cops on his payroll, and DiAngelo and his Mafioso friends want to put him out of circulation for good. Escaping via a wild taxi ride, Tommy is back in business and out for revenge.

This enables Cohen to serve up a series of crazy/cool set pieces that moves the film forward at a dizzying speed. There’s an amphibious assault on the syndicate’s compound where the bodies pile up and the gangsters are force-fed soul food! You can’t have a 70’s flick without the obligatory sex scene, and Williamson engages in a sensuous tryst with the angelic Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery, later an Oscar nom for THE COLOR PURPLE). A moody scene highlighting 42nd Street in its sleazy 70’s heyday (there’s even a movie poster for Klaus Kinski’s ’71 giallo SLAUGHTER HOTEL!) finds the traitorous Zach (Tony King) murdering Tommy’s ex Helen (Gloria Hendry) in a dark alley. Tommy chases Zach from New York to LA in an improbable scene that winds up in a Los Angeles airport. Tommy’s final acts of retribution include slamming a beach umbrella through the sunning torso of Mafia chief Joe Frankfurter, and other gruesome highlights!

HELL UP IN HARLEM has a massive body count, crazy cartoonish violence, tough banter, and even some brief  kung-fu action thrown in for good measure! Former NFL/AFL star Williamson was one of the genre’s most charismatic stars, looking sharp in those totally outrageous 70’s outfits, and runs through the film like an All-Pro defensive back (which he was!). Julius Harris steals the show as Tommy’s Big Papa, adding to his list of colorful characterizations in films like SUPER FLY, TROUBLE MAN, and LIVE AND LET DIE. He even gets his own theme song, the funky “Big Papa”:

The funk/jazz score by Fonce Mizell (who co-wrote many of the Jackson 5’s hits) and Freddie Perren (the disco anthem “I Will Survive”) features the gruff vocal talents of Motown’s Edwin Starr, whose hits included “Agent Double-O Soul”, “Twenty Five Miles”, and the classic track “War”, later covered by Bruce Springsteen. HELL UP IN HARLEM was obviously a rush job to capitalize on the success of BLACK CAESAR, but Larry Cohen doesn’t fail to disappoint his audience, cramming in action scene after action scene. It’s sexy and violent and complete nonsense, but somehow Cohen and his cast make it work on a shoestring budget and a warped sense of humor.

Now enjoy Edwin Starr lip-synching “War”, along with the funky gyrations of the SOUL TRAIN dancers:

That’s Blaxploitation! 9: THREE THE HARD WAY (Allied Artists 1974)

tthw1

An All-Star Blaxploitation cast barrels their way through THREE THE HARD WAY, director Gordon Parks Jr.’s ultra-violent classic that dives into action from jump street and rarely lets up on the gas pedal straight through til the end. It’s the quintessential 70’s action flick whose thin plot only serves to weave a tapestry of wild action set pieces and well-staged stunt work courtesy of stunt coordinator Hal Needham and his stellar stunt gang.

tthw2

We’re lured into the action right from the get-go in a pre-credits scene of a desperate young black man escaping from a concentration-camp-like compound. He makes it to L.A. and contacts his friend, the BMW-driving, hot-shot record producer Jimmy Lait, played by NFL great Jim Brown . The kid is then assassinated in his hospital bed and Jimmy’s girl Wendy (Sheila Fraser) is kidnapped. A scene change lets us in on the plot, as white supremacist Monroe Feather and evil scientist Dr. Fortero have designed a “scientific” final solution to the race problem by spiking the water supplies of urban areas with a poison that kills only black folks!

tthw3

Jimmy then enlists two of his old pals to help foil the fiendish plot and save Wendy. Another football player turned actor, Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, is studly Chicago PR man Jagger Daniels. Williamson was already a Blaxploitation icon for films like BLACK CEASAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, and he and Brown have good screen chemistry (the pair would appear together in four other films). Then it’s on to Washington to recruit Mister Keyes, played by BLACK BELT JONES star Jim Kelly, whose incredible kung-fu moves made up for his lack of acting talent. These three bad-asses proceed to take on the villainous Feather’s army, winding up in an explosive finale that’s violent, bloody, and loads of fun.

tthw44

I’ve got to mention the titanic trio of topless female torturers who pop up, riding in garbed in red, white, and blue on matching Kawasakis to dole out punishment on a captured racist. They’re Countess (Playboy cover girl Pamela Serpe), Empress (Irene Tsu of HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI and PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE), and Princess (Marie O’Henry of DELIVER US FROM EVIL and DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE)….

tthw5

…and they’re a riotous highlight! They should’ve gotten their own film!

Crazy Jay Robinson, who played Caligula in THE ROBE and DEMETRIOS AND THE GLADIATORS, bring his oily talents to the role of Monroe Feather, and wasn’t even Oscar nominated (I know, I know, but he really is good in the part)! Familiar Faces include Charles McGregor (SUPER FLY’s Fat Freddie), Howard Platt (Officer Hoppy of SANFORD AND SON), Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER), martial artist David Chow (who joins Kelly in a wild battle against some goons), and a young Corbin Bernsen. Richard Tufo composed the score, with songs by Curtis Mayfield’s old group The Impressions. Veteran Lucien Ballard capably handles the cinematography with his usual style.

tthw6

As far-fetched and unbelievable as THREE THE HARD WAY is, its non-stop action and likable stars kept me entertained all the way, and that’s exactly what I want out of a movie. It’s one of the definitive films in the Blaxploitation canon, and if you’re a fan like me, you’re gonna love this one. Get that popcorn ready, and enjoy!