Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Black Mass currently in theaters, and Legend on its way to them, we’re recommending gangster movies.
Black Caesar (1973)
In an early scene of Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar, a white police officer (Art Lund) assaults a black shoeshine boy (Omer Jeffrey) on the stairs of a creaky apartment building. Cohen shoots the scene to stress the sensation of injustice—the murky stairwell is awash in evil shadows, the patchy pace of the cutting accentuates each strike, and Lund’s eyes glow with a hungry, racist bloodlust (“I’ll cut your black balls off,” he hisses). Cohen, however, is too ambitious (and, frankly, nutty) a director to leave the racial politics at that level of easy digestibility. Following a scene in which the injured shoeshine boy plots his gangster future from a hospital bed, Cohen jumps forward a dozen years, to the Harlem of October 1965. The boy, Tommy Gibbs (now played by Fred Williamson), has grown into a man. But though he still moves with a slight limp, he plies his violent trade with immense gusto: To prove his worth to a local mob boss, he guns a man down in a barber shop, carves the victim’s ear off on the spot, and then places the ear on the boss’ spaghetti plate.
As Gibbs’ actions become more and more revolting—one scene shows him raping a woman—Cohen complicates the cause-effect relationship between Gibbs’ childhood trauma in the stairwell and the extraordinary carnage he himself orchestrates as an adult. In the movie’s most destructive sequence, Gibbs orders a large-scale massacre on the Cardoza family’s California compound; in the subsequent shootout, staged at Cohen’s own home, dozens of men are launched into a swimming pool, their bullet-riddled bodies painting the water red. Later on, Gibbs’ acts of violence turn more personal and racially charged, including another stairway hurl (in which Gibbs is now the aggressor) and the movie’s famous climax, in which Gibbs, Officer McKinney (Lund), and a can of shoe polish come together in a moment of sloppy, screaming vengeance.
But Cohen, a grade-A denizen of B-movie sleaze, is not only interested in subversive ideas—he’s also a resourceful and crafty stylist, which suggests why a disturbing, no-budget movie like Black Caesar was successful enough to spawn a sequel (Hell Up In Harlem). Watching Williamson, his powerful jaw a mountain range unto itself, strut past the Apollo Theater in an episode of grand swagger is as exciting as anything in pricier, more polished descendants like Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. On top of the Williamson performance, the movie also glides on the power of James Brown’s soundtrack—which extends from the deeply sorrowful (“Mama’s Dead”) to the scrappy, on-the-move rhythms of the opening credits (“Down And Out In New York City”)—and Cohen’s gonzo set-piece instincts, as when he lets a speeding taxi loose on pedestrian-strewn sidewalks during a pivotal chase.
Availability: Black Caesar is available on a new DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films, which can be purchased on Amazon. An older disc can also be acquired from Netflix, and the film is available to rent or purchase through the major digital services.