Release Date(s)1972 (May 6, 2022)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region-Free Australian Blu-ray import.]
Director Barry Shear’s Across 110th Street is a memorably nasty crime thriller from 1972, featuring a killer soundtrack led by Bobby Womack’s iconic title song. The screenplay is by Luther Davis, based on the novel Across 110th by Wally Ferris. Captain Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) is a ruthless New York City police officer who is forced to team up with the straight-laced Lieutenant Pope (Yaphet Kotto) while investigating a major heist. Three men had hit a mafia money drop, stealing $300,000, but killing the mobsters, members of an African-American syndicate, and two police officers in the process. That puts the thieves in the crosshairs of the mafia enforcer Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), as well as the entire network of the Harlem crime boss “Doc” Johnson (the inimitable Richard Ward). Pope is in charge of the investigation, and while he works strictly by the book, Mattelli has never seen a rule that he wasn’t willing to break. So, the two end up at odds with each other while racing to find the thieves before D’Salvio and Johnson get to them first. Across 110th Street also stars Paul Benjamin, Ed Bernard, and Antonio Fargas (watch for Burt Young in a small cameo).
Quinn served as an executive producer on Across 110th Street, and he hadn’t intended to act in the film, but he took over the role of Mattelli after John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster all passed on the part. Kotto wasn’t Quinn’s first choice either, as he had originally approached Sydney Poitier to play Pope. Unfortunately, the similarities to In the Heat of the Night would have been too obvious, and the film really needed a grittier actor like Kotto as Pope. That grittiness extended to the film itself, as veteran television director Shear insisted on shooting everything on real locations in Harlem, using handheld cameras. While some elements of Across 110th Street may have dated a bit, the verisimilitude provided by the location shooting is still remarkably effective.
The racial tensions are thick all throughout Across 110th Street, but the biggest conflict in the film is actually between the old and the new. Mattelli represents the old-school approach to policework; he believes that the ends justify any possible means, and he’s happy to take money along the way. Pope, on the other hand, recognizes that policing can’t have any credibility when officers act like they’re above the law. Similarly, bosses like “Doc” Johnson chafe at being treated like employees by the Italian mob, and he wants to take full charge of his own neighborhood. Both of those themes come together at the conclusion of the film; when Johnson asserts his authority in dramatic fashion, the old gives way to the new with the police as well. In fact, there’s a literal handoff between Mattelli and Pope, and in case anyone may have missed that point, Shear chose to freeze-frame on that image before the credits roll. This coda may seem like it comes out of left field, but it’s thematically appropriate for the film. There will be new sheriffs on this side of 110th Street, on both sides of the law.
Cinematographer Jack Priestly shot Across 110th Street on 35 mm film using Arriflex 35BL and 35 IIC cameras with high-speed Panavision spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. It was the first film to use the new lightweight 35BL cameras, which facilitated handheld shooting in confined interior locations. There’s no information regarding the master that MGM provided for Via Vision’s Blu-ray, but it appears to be an older one. The image is generally clean, with moderate grain for most of the film, although it gets pretty heavy in the low-light shots (Priestly pushed the film one to two stops during development). There’s a decent amount of fine detail, too, despite the fact that Priestly used diffusion filters throughout the shoot. The biggest weakness in the transfer is the black levels, which can look washed out, with minimal shadow detail. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the highlights can look a little blown out, especially around light sources. That’s a natural effect from the fog filters, but it may be a little exaggerated in this grade. The colors tend to be muted, save for some of the more flamboyant costuming, but they look accurate to the original design for the film.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional English SDH subtitles. Everything sounds clean and clear, although due to the extensive location shooting, there’s some noticeable ADR in the final film. It can sound a little unnatural compared to the production dialogue, but it’s how it was recorded. (The 35BL cameras were self-blimped and allowed for capturing dialogue on set, but there must have been issues with other background noises.) The score by J.J. Johnson sounds good, as do the songs from Bobby Womack. (If the title song sounds a bit different than the version used by Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown, that’s because Womack re-recorded it as a single the year after Across 110th Street was released, and that’s the version that has been heard the most frequently ever since.)
Via Vision’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of Across 110th Street is #120 in their Imprint line, and it comes with a Limited Edition slipcase featuring artwork based upon one of the theatrical posters, and an insert based upon a different poster design. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Matthew Asprey Gear
- Anthony Quinn: An Original (Upscaled HD – 58:43)
- Interview with Author Mikel J. Koven (HD – 25:50)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:56)
Matthew Asprey Gear is an author, teacher, and critic, and lecturer who has written books related to the neo-noir subgenre. He opens his commentary by giving an overview of his intentions: providing a history of the production; discussing its leading participants; and putting the film in context with the history of the American crime film. He sticks to that plan, covering things like the lengthy casting process, Shear’s innovative location shooting methodology, and biographical details for various members of the cast and crew. Needless to say, he also finds many neo-noir elements in Across 110th Street. Gear closes by talking about the release and promotion of the film, reading from a few of the fairly negative reviews. He acknowledges that there’s no redemption to be had in the world of this film, so it has a suitably bleak ending.
Anthony Quinn: An Original is a 1990 television documentary about the actor, written and directed by Gene Feldman and Suzanne Winter. Featuring interviews with friends, family, and co-workers, it’s a comprehensive look at the actor’s life and career. Quinn is also on hand to share his own thoughts about his life and work.
Mikel J. Koven is the author of the book Blaxploitation Films, who starts by asking whether or not Across 110th Street belongs in that classification (spoiler alert: he doesn’t). He spends some time defining the elements of the blaxploitation genre, and tracing how it became effectively gentrified in the latter half of the Seventies. He then explains the ways in which Across 110th Street fits the classification, and the ways in which it doesn’t. There’s an element of gatekeeping to his analysis (he inevitably brings up giallo at one point), but it’s still a valuable discussion.
Thanks to Tarantino, Across 110th Street is probably remembered more at this point for the Bobby Womack song than it is for the film itself, so it’s nice that Via Vision is giving it some Region-Free special edition love. The previous Kino Lorber Blu-ray had no extras other the theatrical trailer, so this version is the clear winner between the two.
- Stephen Bjork