• Hell Up In Harlem

    Released by: Olive Films
    Released on: August 29th, 2017.
    Director: Larry Cohen
    Cast: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D'Urville Martin
    Year: 1973
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    The Movie:

    Remember when Fred Williamson’s character died at the end of BLACK CAESAR?

    Yeah. Me too. But apparently director/screenwriter Larry Cohen and the good folks at AIP got some quick amnesia, because good old Tommy Gibbs was back in the hood and at the criminal hustling game less than a year later. And looking damn good doing it.

    Let’s talk blacksploitation. Deemed racist by some, enjoyed by many others (often people of color) and now virtually extinct in the PC age, these were films often made on the fly by small independent companies. The talent in front of the camera was overwhelmingly black. But the players financing and directing mostly white. This created some tensions amongst that eras social progressives - and while many black actors were simply happy to work, some activists viewed these films as a type of minstrel show, especially considering their focus on garish outfits, criminal activity and hyper sexuality. The sexism charge was even thornier - while women were routinely treated like party favors, the genre also had a strong focus on badass females like Pam Grier who was minted a star in the blacksploitation game and headlined films. The big Hollywood studios even swooped in and tried to sell tickets to films that were serious fare like ACROSS 110TH STREET playing them off as part of the cycle. But mostly the little guys like AIP made cash.

    Scrappy writer and director Cohen was the master at these films. He started writing for the prestigious Reginald Rose television creation “The Defenders”, which was an extension of the socially conscious film 12 ANGRY MEN. This sober legal drama trained Cohen well on meeting deadlines and delivering solid scripts quickly. By the time he started making his own films, the man was a well-oiled machine.

    The plot of HELL UP IN HARLEM is the usual devil’s soup of gangster and blacksploitation cliches with double-crossing gang associates, faithless girlfriends and racist cops and legal authorities. The film opens with Gibbs (Fred Williamson), bleeding on the street (Jesus would be impressed by this resurrection) and reaching out to his estranged father (Julius Harris) for help. Gibbs makes it to the Harlem hospital where his gangster associates manage to protect him from the criminal and racist cops out to get him by using Tommy’s leverage. What’s that? The. Black Caesar has a ledger full of the corrupt dealings of these whitey scumbags of course! There’s even a whole detour into Los Angeles with Gibbs there on business while his father handles the Harlem rackets alongside the Black Caesar’s second in command Zach (Tony King).

    But you know what? Forget the plot. Just get on board the Larry Cohen crazy train and enjoy the ride. This movie is FUN. Shot in that gorgeous bygone NYC 70’s grindhouse age, the streets are mean and the garbage collectors are on strike in the Big Apple. Cohen shot this thing guerrilla style and on the fly. The amazing Williamson was a former football star of the rather large variety and man can you tell. This is one athletic dude. He runs into traffic and does most of his own stunts. And looks damn good doing it. The extended action setpiece in the airport is a thing of beauty. Fred is a natural at this stuff and just oozes charisma. Williamson also assembled his own wardrobe for the film and he always looks simultaneously awesome and absurd. Check out the screen caps.

    The cast is uniformly excellent. Tony King, who would later be a staple of Italian exploitation and OTT horror like CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE and THE LAST HUNTER is a particular standout. This was his “respectable” career phase where he acted in mainstream fare like the excellent REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER. He’s very good here - almost as good looking as Williamson and nicely aggressive. He makes the character a credible threat. Harris and D’Urville Martin (as a pimp turned preacher) turn in first class performances as well. Harris’s increasingly morally compromised papa Caesar is especially memorable. And the beautiful Gloria Hendry manages to bring some real pathos to her scorned girlfriend and mother role. She cheated on Gibbs and had her children with him taken away and was forced into prostitution. Sad and pretty heavy stuff for a blacksploitation romp!

    But the best bit? Watching a murderous and racist piece of white garbage get lynched by his own necktie.


    Olive's 1.85.1 framed 1080p AVC encoded won’t be taking home any gold statues from the next Hi Def Magazine awards show but it gets the job done. It looks like an older master but the basics are strong in terms of fine detail, black levels and image stability. No troublesome tinkering is evident and the film grain looks natural. HELL UP IN HARLEM is at its best in the closeups. Dig those suit fibers.

    DTS-HD 2.0 Mono is the name of the audio game here and it’s spectacularly… competent. The sound field is limited but properly focused. Gunshots sound good with plenty of “crack” on both ends and all dialogue is clear. The music has nice presence. The track is has no real problems worth noting.

    Unlike Olive’s Blu of BLACK CAESAR which dropped that DVD’s commentary, this one DOES have a commentary with director Cohen. The twist? It is a new one, not the chat on the old HELL UP IN HARLEM DVD. This one is moderated by Steve Mitchell who has made a documentary on the director called KING COHEN. As you can imagine, the two have fantastic chemistry and the talk is a treat. Cohen goes over the crazy way he shoots films on the fly, talks about how good looking Williamson is and what made him such a natural for these films as well as some blunt talk about the man’s ego. Some of the production details like the regular use of Cohen’s home are interesting and the way the director regarded the other actors like Tony King (he’s a fan). Cohen is razor sharp, funny and animated. This is everything an audio commentary should be. You also get the film’s theatrical trailer.

    The Final Word:

    Not for the faint of PC heart, this is nevertheless a treat for fans of the blacksploitation genre. A little wilder and woolier than its immediate predecessor, it is still one of the top films in this stable. Williamson is a treat and he’s surrounded by strong talent. The package’s only significant extra is strong enough to add genuine value and the AV is solid. Recommended. Bigly.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!