Friday, June 24, 2011

#322. Black Caesar (1973)

Directed By: Larry Cohen

Starring: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund

Tag line: "Hail Caesar, Godfather of Harlem...The Cat with the .45-Caliber Claws!"

Trivia:  The name Caesar is never spoken in the movie

The appeal of Black Caesar, a 1973 crime/drama directed by Larry Cohen, can be summed up in two words: Star Power.  Or, to be more specific, these two words: Fred Williamson.  As Tommy, the up-and-coming gangster who lets his gun do the talking, Williamson is undeniably magnetic, creating a character whose violent temperament is matched only by his driving ambition. 

Growing up in a New Yok City ghetto, Tommy Gibbs (Williamson) learned early on just how cruel the world could be.  Hoping to improve his situation, Tommy sets his sights on becoming a top man in the criminal underworld, a dream fueled by a childhood incident in which his leg was broken by a racist cop (Art Lund).  Bent on revenge, Tommy gathers up as much power in the neighborhood as he possibly can, impressing a mobster named Cardoza (Val Avery), the head of a crime family, with his determination and zeal.  Soon, Tommy's accepted into the rank and file of the New York mafia, yet try as he might, he can't resist lashing out at the hatred and intolerance all around him. 

Despite Tommy's volatile nature, which we bear witness to time and again throughout Black Caesar, he remains, at all times, a very sympathetic character, mostly because we know what it took for him to get to the top.  In the film's early scenes, Tommy is subjected to plenty of verbal and physical abuse, which he's only too willing to absorb if it means getting his foot in the proverbial door.  The mob first learns of Tommy when he shoots a man named Grossfield (Patrick McAllister), who had recently crossed Cardoza (this shooting leads to my favorite scene in the film, where Tommy, to prove he's done the job, throws Grossfield's severed ear onto a plate of spaghetti).  As a reward, Tommy is given his own territory.  From here, he works tirelessly, building up enough power to finally exact his revenge on the cop (now chief of police) who injured him all those years earlier.  Having spent the better part of his life being kicked by crooks and cops alike, Tommy's finally ready to start kicking back. 

In Black Caesar, Fred Williamson displays both a natural charisma and a commanding screen pesence, creating a criminal who's much more than a common thug.  His Tommy is clearly a very angry man, yet his hostility is masked by an engagingly sarcastic wit, which adds something more to the characterization.  By crafting such a well-defined hoodlum, Williamson has brought to the screen one of the most memorable movie gangsters I've seen in a long while.

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