Tuesday, May 4, 2021

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Crimes of '72

When The Godfather won Best Picture, it became the fourth crime drama to do so. Crime seemed to be on the mind of the 1970s film community: The Godfather was the second of four consecutive Best Picture winners in the subgenre, and the first of three to completely center the criminals as the protagonists. Maybe it was the pessimism of the ongoing Vietnam War, maybe it was the way the Tate-LaBianca murders brought a violent end to a hopeful decade, maybe it was the loosening of restrictions and complete dismantling of the Production Code in 1968. Whatever the reason, crime was a big focus for the industry, from independent exploitation efforts to big studio programmers. Such as:

Shaft's Big Score!
dir: Gordon Parks
pr: Roger H. Lewis / Ernest Tidyman
scr: Ernest Tidyman
cin: Urs Furrer

The first sequel, with an entirely original screenplay from Shaft novelist Ernest Tidyman! Gone is Isaac Hayes, with director Gordon Parks taking on music duties and ably aping the great man's style. Slicker than its predecessor, it manages to lag in its all-action final act; it just doesn't compare with the excitement of any scene featuring sexy, sly Kathy Imrie as a femme fatale go-go dancer, rarely delivering a line or look how you'd expect. Still, I like both movies more in theory than in practice; they're kind of dull

Boxcar Bertha
dir: Martin Scorsese
pr: Roger Corman
scr: Joyce Hooper Corrington & John William Corrington
cin: John M. Stephens

Sophomore Scorsese set in the Depression, with Barbara Hershey as the titular heroine, one-fourth of a gang whose anti-establishment criminal exploits eventually undercut their nobler mission of fighting for unions and the forgotten man. Ultimately more concerned with David Carradine's rabble-rousing Big Bill Shelley than it is with Hershey's Bertha (the Christ imagery is interesting), it's an engaging enough flick whose auteurist stamp feels more Corman than Scorsese...until the final shootout, wow and jeepers! Watch for the chemistry between the actors.

Super Fly
dir: Gordon Parks., Jr.
pr: Sig Shore
scr: Phillip Fenty
cin: James Signorelli

Drug dealer Priest (the polished, humorless Ron O'Neal) looks to make one last big score so he can finally go straight. Naturally, he has to contend with a number of elements to make it happen: corrupt cops who want their share, a greedy business partner, unreliable dealers. Buoyed by great supporting performances from Carl Lee and Julius Harris and a bangin' soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield - the showcase montage showing the process of the drug business, from chemist to corner, all set to "Pusherman" is iconic, oft-imitated. A shockingly clumsy finale, but I've still thought about this film a lot more than some of the Oscar nominees, and its low-budget, on-the-ground, guerrilla-style location shooting is a gas.

Come Back, Charleston Blue
dir: Mark Warren
pr: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.
scr: Ernest Kinoy (as Bontche Schweig) & Peggy Elliott
cin: Richard C. Kratina

The second film to star Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as Chester Hines' Harlem detectives finds our heroes suspecting that a photographer/community leader may be tied to recent killings targeting the mafia. The film continues its predecessor Cotton Comes to Harlem's conversation about intra-exploitation within the Black community. The ideas here are great, I just don't know that they're consistently given the attention they deserve amidst the comic mugging and muddled writing.

Across 110th Street
dir: Barry Shear
pr: Fouad Said / Ralph B. Serpe
scr: Luther Davis
cin: Jack Priestley

Primarily shooting in actual locations instead of soundstages, Shear and Priestley give the proceedings a visceral, urgent quality that captures the grime and sweat of the city. There's a beautiful ugliness in the images. Plotwise? I thought the tension between a subconsciously racist, all-fists Latin police detective (Anthony Quinn) and a new, quieter, by-the-bookl Black cop (Yaphet Kotto) was almost there. Almost. A few more scenes, maybe, to really flesh that out, to earn that final, abrupt freeze frame? The criminal plot, in which three down-on-their-luck ex-cons try to survive after executing a deadly heist, is the heart of it all, a great showcase for the actors (Paul Benjamin, Ed Bernard, Antonio Fargas), and a human cry against the lack of opportunities for ex-cons, the exploitation of neighborhoods by organized crime, the limited accessibility of our mental health system...and so much more. 

Trouble Man
dir: Ivan Dixon
pr: Joel D. Freeman
scr: John D.F. Black
cin: Michel Hugo

Mr. T (Robert Hooks) is a licensed private detective who mostly uses his power and resources as a fixer for the troubles that ail South Central, whether it be apathetic slumlords, out-of-town pool shark hotshots, or interloping crime bosses. Every action hero wants what this man has: a sharp wardrobe, studly looks, catlike reflexes, expert marksmanship, and a love for all the ladies, be they Paula Kelly or Virginia Capers. Confidently directed by actor Ivan Dixon (Mr. Asagai in A Raisin in the Sun), music by Marvin Gaye. A sexy good time. 

Prime Cut
dir: Michael Ritchie
pr: Joe Wizan
scr: Robert Dillon
cin: Gene Polito

Oh my God, what a movie! You've got Lee Marvin being hired on by the Chicago mob to not only get money owed them by a cattle rancher, but avenge the deaths of the previous "messengers." You've got Gene Hackman as the rancher, the biggest exporter of beef in the world, a part-time sex trafficker and criminal kingpin who runs his entire town. You've got Sissy Spacek as a teen turned out by a corrupt orphanage and saved by Marvin, and while there are doe eyes on her end, he's respectful enough not to let things go too far. Hell, he doesn't even slap a gal around, good or bad, a clear-eyed hero who genuinely respects women and his friends, who doesn't start with the fisticuffs until it becomes absolutely necessary (though, God, you can see in his eyes in their first meeting that he's ready to take down Hackman). Perfectly written, thrillingly edited, and with an eerie soundscape of lowing cattle, open prairie air, and dirt-scuffing boots, Prime Cut is..........Grade-A meat.

Tomorrow, 1972's awards season officially begins with the 30th Golden Globe.

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