“If you steal $300,000 from the mob, it’s not robbery. It’s suicide." Whenever I come across a blurb about Across 110th Street, the word “gritty” is inevitably used to describe this outstanding crime drama filmed on location in Harlem that features a superb cast, including Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, Paul Benjamin, Anthony Franciosa, Ed Bernard, Richard Ward, Norma Donaldson, Gilbert Lewis and Marlene Warfield. Too often labeled as a “blaxploitation” picture, Across 110th Street easily transcends that genre. Based on the 1970 novel, Across 110th, by Wally Ferris, the film treats racial issues head-on and pulls no punches. Three desperate, small-time criminals led by troubled epileptic “Jim Harris” (Paul Benjamin) rob a Mafia cash drop for $300,000 and end up killing everyone in sight, including five mobsters and two police officers. Tough, by-the-book African-American "Lieutenant William Pope” (Kotto) is forced to team up with bigoted, booze-swilling, bribe-taking, burned-out "Captain Frank Mattelli” (Quinn) to try and crack the case. Meanwhile, sadistic Mafia thug "Nick D’Salvio" (Franciosa) is out for his own style of revenge. Ward excels as Harlem mob boss “Doc Johnson,” while Antonio Fargas (“Huggy Bear” from the Starsky and Hutch TV series) portrays doomed getaway driver “Henry J. Jackson.” Also look briefly for Burt Young as one of the mobsters who gets blown away in the opening gun battle. The film was directed by Barry Shear (Wild in the Streets). Written by Bobby Womack and J. J. Johnson, the catchy title song was later featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown: “Take my advice, it’s either live or die/You’ve got to be strong, if you want to survive.” Benjamin portrayed “English” in Escape from Alcatraz (1979).
Useless Trivia: In “Goin’ Out West,” Tom Waits sings, “Well I’m goin’ out west/Where the wind blows tall/’Cause Tony Franciosa/Used to date my ma …”