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 Blaxploitation! 8: SUPER FLY (Warner Brothers 1972)

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Pimpmobiles, outrageous fashions, and the funkiest score in movie history are only part of what makes SUPER FLY one of the best Blaxploitation/Grindhouse hits of all time. This low-budget film by director Gordon Parks Jr. captures the grittiness of 70’s New York in a way few larger productions ever could in its portrait of a street hustler yearning to get out of the life.

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Priest is a New York City coke dealer with all the outward trappings of success. As his partner Eddie puts it, he’s got “8-Track stereo, color TV in every room, and you can snort a half piece of dope every day… that’s the American dream, nigga! Ain’t it?”. To Priest, the answer is no. He’s tired of the hustle, the rip-off artists, and the deadbeats like Fat Freddie, and he’s got a plan to get out for good by scoring 30 keys through his mentor Scatter, selling them in four months, making a million dollars, and saying goodbye to the streets once and for all.

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But Priest’s plan hits a few snags when Fat Freddie gets busted and rats him out, triggering crooked cops led by a Deputy Commissioner to pull Priest and Eddie back in, making them an offer they can’t refuse to work for The Man. Eddie’s all for it, but Priest’s determined to quit after Scatter’s lugged by the cops and shot full of heroin, causing is death. Priest demands his half of the cash from Eddie, who promptly calls The Man. But once again, Priest’s got a plan to stick it to The Man one last time…

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SUPER FLY made a superstar out of Ron O’Neal- for a brief, shining moment anyway. Primarily a stage actor before this, O’Neal lights up the screen as the iconic anti-hero Priest, and gave him enough clout to direct the sequel, 1973’s SUPER FLY TNT. The sequel bombed at the box office however, and his subsequent film career saw him cast in mostly supporting roles: THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER (with BILLY JACK star Tom Laughlin), WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, A FORCE OF ONE, RED DAWN, and Larry Cohen’s ORIGINAL GANGSTERS, with fellow Blaxploitaion icons Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, and Richard Roundtree. Ron O’Neal, forever SUPER FLY, passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2004.

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The other cast members aren’t household names, but will be familiar to genre fans. Carl Lee (Eddie) appeared in GORDON’S WAR as well as the exploitationer  WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS . (He was also the son of boxer/actor Canada Lee, noted for Hicthcock’s LIFEBOAT and the boxing noir BODY AND SOUL). Sheila Frazier (Priest’s main squeeze Georgia) was in 70’s films THE SUPER COPS, THREE THE HARD WAY, CALIFORNIA SUITE, and tons of TV guest shots. The great Julius Harris (Scatter) has an impressive resume that includes TROUBLE MAN, BLACK CAESAR, HELL UP IN HARLEM, and the James Bond outing LIVE AND LET DIE. Charles McGregor (Fat Freddie) can be seen in ACROSS 110th STREET and COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE, among others. Producer Sig Shore pulls double duty by playing the crooked Commissioner Reardon.

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Director Gordon Parks Jr’s dad was a famous writer, photographer, and filmmaker who practically single-handedly ushered in the Blaxploitation film movement with his mega-hit SHAFT. But while the elder Parks’ protagonist was a more traditional hero, Parks Jr.’s star is an outlaw, working outside the constrains of society. Not to mention SHAFT had a way bigger budget than SUPER FLY’s paltry $58,000. Both films scored big at the box office though, and a genre was born. Kudos must go to DP James Signorelli, whose photography of New York street life is outstanding, and whose memorable staging of a steamy, soapy sex scene between O’Neal and Frazier still sizzles. Signorelli has worked for decades now producing most of the filmed parody segments on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Any discussion of SUPER FLY wouldn’t be complete without spotlighting Curtis Mayfield’s amazing soundtrack. The former lead singer of The Impressions’ urban soul/funk provides the perfect backdrop for the film’s down-and-dirty mood. As big a hit as the film was, the soundtrack album was an enormous success. Even white kids like me used to cruise around listening to “Superfly”, “Pusherman”, and “Freddie’s Dead” on our 8-Tracks (yes, 8-Tracks!). Mayfield and his band even appear in the film, playing “Pusherman” at Scatter’s club:

Fans of Blaxploitation/Grindhouse movies who haven’t yet seen SUPER FLY are depriving themselves of a genuine 70’s classic. It’s one of those films that captures the times perfectly, and influenced future filmmakers like John Singleton (BOYS N THE HOOD) and Ernest Dickerson (JUICE). “The game he plays he plays for keeps/Hustlin’ times and ghetto streets/Tryin’ to get over” indeed!

More “That’s Blaxploitation!”:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

 

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 7: TROUBLE MAN (20th Century-Fox 1972)

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One of the earliest Blaxploitaion films is TROUBLE MAN, a 1972 entry about Mr T…

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…no, not THAT Mr. T! THIS Mr. T…

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Thank you! This Mr. T is played by Robert Hooks, a tough talking private eye who drives a big-ass Lincoln Continental and “fixes troubles” on the mean streets of L.A. T gets hired by gangsters Chalky Price and Pete Cockrell to protect their crap games, which are getting ripped off by masked gunmen. Things go awry when Chalky shoots one of the heisters, a dude named Abby who works for rival gangster “Big”. Abby’s body is dumped and word is on the streets T did the killing. Police Capt. Joe Marx puts the heat on T, as does “Big”, so T arranges a late night summit between “Big”, Chalky, and Pete at Jimmy’s Pool Hall .  “Big” arrives, but before Chalky and Pete do, some cops raid the joint. These cops aren’t what they seem, and gun down “Big”. T is framed again, and figures out the two hoods have set him up, so he goes out for revenge in a violent and bloody climax.

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TROUBLE MAN is noted for its score by Motown legend Marvin Gaye and not much else. It didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s not as bad as some say.”Routine” would be a good word to describe it. Robert Hooks was primarily a stage actor who’d broken the color barrier as the first black to star in a weekly TV dramatic series, N.Y.P.D (Bill Cosby in I SPY notwithstanding, which had as much comedy as drama). The cast is full of seasoned pros like Paul Winfield (SOUNDER, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN), Ralph Waite (THE WALTONS), Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE), William Smithers (PAPILLION, DALLAS), Paula Kelly (SOYLENT GREEN ), and Bill Henderson, a jazz singer who acted in dozens of films and TV episodes. Others in the cast are Gordon Jump (WKRP IN CINCINNATI), Nathaniel Taylor (Rollo in SANFORD & SON), real-life pool shark Texas Blood, and former welterweight champion Danny “Little Red” Lopez.

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The problem lies in John D.F. Black’s script, which “borrows” heavily from his script for SHAFT, transplanting the character to the West Coast. Some of the dialogue is pretty lame: “You fuckin’ A-right I’m right!”, declares T at one point (Although my favorite line is when one of the henchmen says things went “like sippin’ whiskey… smooth as fuckin’ silk”).Black did much better work on the original STAR TREK series. The direction by HOGAN’S HEROES actor Ivan Dixon is pedestrian at best, only coming to life at the movie’s bloody climax. I think 20th Century-Fox had high hopes for TROUBLE MAN, but when it tanked at the box office no sequels were made.

TROUBLE MAN is just okay, but could’ve been much better with more inspired direction and a stronger script. It’s just kind of mediocre; take out the swearing and the blood, and you’ve got your basic TV detective show. Maybe that’s the route they should’ve taken, and turned it into a weekly series. As it stands, it’s one of the lesser entries in the Blaxploitation catalogue.