Two decades in the gangland scene, Larry Cohen's The Emperor Jones and then some. The sciuscià lad in Fifties Harlem gets a swift education in the racket and is battered for his trouble, a dozen years later and the slight limp in his leg only heightens the racy grandeur of the Fred Williamson strut. He enters the organization as a hitman and topples the Mafioso in charge, "just trying to break into business... at the top." (The takeover is sketched with startling bluntness, Sicilian mandolins fade into funky bass and there's the mansion pool filled with dead goombas.) From the ghetto to the Manhattan penthouse, "political power" and minstrel death, James Brown on the soundtrack tells the tale: "Paid the cost to be the boss/Look at me, you know what you see/You see a bad mutha." The muggy American Dream from Thirties gangster pics laid bare and ran to its limits, as much a monster movie as any of Cohen's subsequent horror tabloids. A chase with assassins after a cab on crowded sidewalks outstrips The French Connection, yet the objective is not the erection of macho fantasies but their dismantling. The moll (Gloria Hendry) prefers the brain (Philip Roye), meanwhile Momma (Minnie Gentry) can't shake ingrained servility and Dad (Julius Harris) is a vanishing shrug. Vertiginously shifting camera angles pile up until the besieged "white nigger" is bleeding from the gut, alone with his opposite number—the corrupt police captain (Art Lund) who, in the most extraordinarily suggestive sequence, gets bludgeoned with a shine box, blackened with shoe polish, and forced to warble "Mammy." (God Told Me To mirrors the double obliteration.) The severed ear in the spaghetti plate, fur coats out the window, the slumped corpse on the adding machine. A literal junkyard stands for the top of the heap at the finish, "sort of a success story, you might say." With D'Urville Martin, William Wellman Jr., James Dixon, Val Avery, and Andrew Duggan.
--- Fernando F. Croce