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 Voodoo That You Do: Roger Moore as James Bond 007 in LIVE AND LET DIE (United Artists 1973)

Three British agents are murdered, and James Bond is sent overseas to investigate the doings of Dr. Kananga, despot of the Carribean island nation of San Monique in LIVE AND LET DIE. But wait… that’s not Sean Connery as 007, or even George Lazenby. It’s Roger Moore , making the first of his seven appearences as Bond, and adding his own indelible stamp to the role. Moore is a bit more humorous as the secret agent in a film that has elements of Blaxploitaion and voodoo horror to it, but is still 100% Bond.

Sir Roger, fresh off starring in televisions THE SAINT and THE PERSUADERS, handles the role with aplomb, whether battling the bad guys or wrestling in the boudoir. The plot concerns 007 trying to learn the secret of Dr. Kananga and his connection with Harlem ganglord Mr. Big. This takes Bond to New York, New Orleans, and Jamaica (subbing for the fictional San Monique), with plenty of action and perils along the way. Kananga relies heavily on the occult power of Tarot reader Solitaire, but it seems romance with Bond is in the cards for her. Kananga’s got some heavy hitting henchmen, like Tee Hee and his metal claw hand, and Baron Samedi, who may or may not be the real-deal leader of the “legion of the dead”.

Of course, there are lots of action set-pieces along the way, including at a crocodile farm, and a long boat chase through the Louisiana bayous, where we’re first introduced to redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a character many Bond fans disdain, but I’ve always had a soft spot for actor Clifton James’s comic-relief cop. Things get ugly when Bond learns Kananga’s fiendish plan to flood the U.S. market with free heroin, essentially putting the mob out of business and taking control of the drug trade, and that Kananga and Mr. Big are one and the same. Captured in the criminal’s underground lair, Bond and Solitaire are about to become shark bait, but we all know 007’s much to clever for that!

Yaphet Kotto  is suitably evil in the dual role of Kananga/Mr. Big. Kotto, a movie mainstay in the 70’s and 80’s, is best known to contemporary audiences for his time on TV’s HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS. Jane Seymour is one of my favorite Bond babes as the mystical Solitaire. Blaxploitation vet Julius Harris is his usual menacing self as Tee Hee. Dancer Geoffrey Holder is scary good fun as Baron Samedi (later played by Don Pedro Colley in SUGAR HILL ). Gloria Hendry plays traitorous rookie agent Rosie Carver, while David Hedison takes his first turn as CIA liason Felix Leiter (he’d return to the role in 1989’s LICENSE TO KILL). Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell are back as M and Miss Moneypenny, respectively.

Guy Hamilton returns as director, working from a Tom Mankiewicz screenplay, in this unusual entry in the 007 canon. The theme song was a big hit for ex-Beatle Paul McCartney , rising to #2 on the Billboard charts. Beatle producer George Martin orchestrates the films’ score. LIVE AND LET DIE was a great first outing for Roger Moore, though his Bond movies did seem to get progressively sillier as time went on. Let’s wrap up this look as Roger Moore’s Bond debut with the spooky-cool opening credits, sung by the one and only Paul McCartney:

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 Blaxploitaion!: BLACK BELT JONES (Warners 1974)

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Here’s the recipe for the quintessential 70s flick: Take a huge hunk of blaxpolitation, add equal parts kung-fu action, throw in some Mafia type villains. Stick em all in a blender with some generic funk music, and you’ve got BLACK BELT JONES. This movie was made to cash in on all three crazes, and to make a star out of Jim ‘The Dragon’ Kelly, who appeared in director Robert Clouse’s previous kung-fu extravaganza ENTER THE DRAGON, starring the immortal Bruce Lee.  Kelly looked good onscreen, and had all the right martial art moves. Unfortunately, he couldn’t act his way out of a Chinese take-out box. Nobody can in this film except gorgeous Gloria Hendry, who plays Kelly’s kung-fu partner/love interest Sydney.

The plot’s basically just there to hang the action scenes on: Mafia chief Don Stefano tries to grab some land the city of Los Angeles wants for a new civic center. He sends Pinky, the local black gangleader, to threaten Papa Byrd (Scatman Crothers in a terrible hairpiece!), whose karate school sits on the land. Pinky roughs him up a little too well, and Papa dies. Enter Black Belt Jones (friends call him BB), the baddest dude in the hood! Papa’s long-lost daughter Sydney (Hendry) shows up at the funeral, and now owns the building. Turns out she’s a kung-fu fighter, too. Pinky sends for some Bogarts from San Francisco (Don: “What are Bogarts?” – Pinky: “Treacherous niggers!”) to beat up the kung-fu students and hold BB’s young pal Quincy (Eric Lanueville) hostage. BB rips off The Don and sets up Pinky to take the fall. They save Quincy, the hoods find out, and the obligatory car chase is on!  BB and Sydney kick righteous ass on the bad guys and turn them in to BB’s friends the Feds.

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I just love some of the politically incorrect (and inept) dialogue in BLACK BELT JONES:

  • “Wesley, I’m gonna slap the black offa you!”
  • “I’ll make you look like a sick faggot”
  • “You goddam ape! You made a monkey outta us!”

Kelly’s karate noises (“woo-woo-woo”) sound more like Curly Howard than Bruce Lee, while the whipcracking sound effects every time someone lands a blow would make a great drinking game! And those fashions…hoo boy! Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey (“Scorpio”) delivers the theme, while the rest of the score, by Luchi DeJesus, is ersatz Quincy Jones, sounding straight out of a 70s cop show (and indeed, DeJesus did the music for TV’s GET CHRISTIE LOVE!).

Full of hand slapping and jive talking, BLACK BELT JONES is a pure slab of 70s cheese. Quentin Tarantino (whose movies I love) wishes he could’ve made this. If you’re in the mood for an 85 minute blast from the past, catch BLACK BELT JONES. Can you dig it?

(There’ll be more That’s Blaxpolitation! posts in the near futureStay tuned, suckas!) 

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