Across 110th St. opens just like the preview in the video above. Two white men, one with a walking cane, and the other, Uncle Paulie from the Rocky films, enter a tenement in Harlem, NY. Inside an apartment room they are greeted by several African-Americans, who are situated around a table, counting and sorting a pile of money. The scene is identifiable as a typical moment in any gangster film, members of the Italian Mafia, which owns New York, are meeting with their subjugated counterparts in Harlem to collect their portion of the week's earnings from such gangster doings as, the pimping of women and drugs. The scene feels cozy, there is a sense of common friendliness between both races as the most important thing is held center stage between the both of them, money. As they count the week's earnings, prepping it for a suitcase departure, there is a knock on the room door. Two African-Americans dressed as police officers are standing in wait. They enter the room with guns drawn demanding the money. When a moment's mistake causes the situation to turn bad, the two fake cops gun down everyone in the room and take off with the money, killing two pursuing police officers on their way to the getaway vehicle parked across the street.
This opening scenario of course gives way to the film's plot as we are taken to a party in uptown Manhattan where the Italian Mafia agrees that the money must be recovered and a message must be sent to the inhabitants of Harlem, the people across 110th Street (an unofficial boundary line), that the Mafia is in charge and you don't steal from them. The man sent to make sure the job is done, is the disgraced son-in-law of the Don, Nick D'Salvio, played by Anthony Franciosa, who's been given this last chance at redemption. Nick pursues the job like an abused child given the opportunity to abuse back. He carries a zealousness for racism and power that clearly is dishing out what has been dished to him by his own superiors. In order to complete the job Nick must use the help of their Harlem, African-American counterparts, men who clearly do not like Nick and his attitude of racism but understand the Mafia is bigger and have no choice in the matter.
Meanwhile, as Nick is pursuing the culprits in his own manner, two detectives are assigned the case from the police department, Capt. Mattelli played by Anthony Quinn, and Lt. Pope played by Yaphet Kotto. Being a situation of racial tensions in a time coming off the Civil Rights Movement, it is decided by the officials higher up that the African-American detective, Lt. Pope, should take the charge of leading the investigation. Aging veteran Capt. Mattelli is immediately offset by the situation, not only is he Pope's senior with more years experience, Mattelli displays a stubborn sense of prejudice. In one of the few scenes that helps distinguish, Across 110th St, from other Blaxploitation Action films Capt. Mattelli, at the scene of the crime has just been introduced to Lt. Pope and told by his superior officer, Jack, that Pope is in charge, Mattelli is taken by Jack into an adjacent room where the reality of the situation is explained to him, not only is the matter a racial one, but when Mattelli threatens to quit because of the situation it is also explained anyone over the age of fifty is being pushed out of the department. At the end of the conversation Jack says to Mattelli, "I don't know Frank, I make peace with my reality. You're gonna have to make it with yours." The camera moves in for a close up as we watch Mattelli take this in, instead of a quick cutaway we stay on Mattelli for eighteen seconds until he finally says, "What's his name?" The fact Mattelli asks this question now indicates his inner prejudice, not just because of race but because of age, until now he didn't care who Lt. Pope was only that Mattelli would not be in charge.
As the two detectives make moves through Harlem in search of the killers a cold reality of stations in life and the role law enforcement plays in that world is exposed. It is much to the dismay of the by the book attitude of Lt. Pope, who's refusal to play along with the game becomes a catalyst for the film's haunting conclusion. At the center of everything, Nick D'Salvio's hunt for the criminals, Pope and Mattelli's own search, and the lives of the criminals themselves, is the head of the Harlem mob, Doc Johnson, played by Richard Ward. While the Italians might run things on the surface, Doc Johnson holds a firm grip on his territory and his people. This point is firmly illustrated in Doc's ability to casually laugh, as if he's truly getting a kick out of it, at everyone despite the situation. His cool demeanor is not one of arrogance outright, but that of a person who understands how the marionette actually works. Doc and his men may be helping Nick find the criminals, but in the end it's Doc's playground, a point that echoes as we see the film's fading images.
One of, Across 110th St.'s strongest points, is the third element running through the narrative, the criminals. At the beginning of the film when those two men dressed as police officers enter that room, we are introduced to the scenario that drives the plot. We are given nothing prior about the men who commit the crime, simply the act of; one that might give the audience a sense of nihilism towards these characters. However, as the film progresses the three criminals' lives are given to us in fragments, we see their day to day struggles without ever being given their life stories. It's enough to create a sense of purpose and reason for their actions as the forward motion of the plot takes place elsewhere. Like most title songs for movies, we are told in lyrics actions that are mirrored on screen in some form, if we take a look at the lyrics for Across 110th St. written and sung by Bobby Womack we can see that the narrative is told from the point of view of the criminals.
I was the third brother of five, doing whatever I had to do to survive.
I'm not saying what I did was alright,
trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight.
Been down so long getting up didn't cross my mind.
I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find.
You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure,
across 110th street is a hell of a tester.
Through giving the lyrics a point of view the filmmakers, and songwriter, place a sense of centrality as well as empathy around the criminals. Other characters may have their own motivations, or reasons for being involved, but ultimately their purpose for being in the film is because of the criminals and the criminal's motivations.
The Action in Across 110th St. is bloody, visceral and surprisingly intense for a film from 1972. This is due in part to the fact that this film was the first to put into production the Arriflex 35 BL camera. A smaller, more lightweight camera, the 35 BL allowed for tighter, hand held shots, freeing up mobility and giving a documentary style to the cinematography that's more commonly used these days than it was back then. One of the film's best examples of the camera's ability to enhance the experience of spectacle through action and violence is the brutal scene of criminal Henry J. Jackson's vicious beating by Nick D'Salvio.
At times Across 110th St. may feel or even look like a typical 1970's Police Procedural film, or at others like a Blaxploitation Action film, but it crosses boundaries of various genres, ones that also include Urban Drama, Social Commentary, and Tragedy, and in so doing creates in a sense a film that stands beyond genre, and ephemera and becomes something more timeless, a Classic.