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Larry Cohen Collection: “Hell Up In Harlem”

Hell Up In Harlem

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Today, I’ll be wrapping up the first two-week stretch of the Larry Cohen Collection with the 1973 sequel to “Black Caesar”: “Hell Up In Harlem.”

“Hell Up In Harlem” was once again written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen as a direct follow up to his first hit, “Black Caesar.”

Outside of Larry Cohen, the producers for “Hell Up In Harlem” were b-movie legend Samuel Arkoff (“Q”) and a trio returning producers from “Black Caesar”: James Dixon, Janelle Webb, and Peter Sabiston.

The cinematographer for “Hell Up In Harlem” was once again Fenton Hamilton, who also acted as director of photography on “It’s Alive” simultaneously.

The effects work on “Hell Up In Harlem” is credited to Marvin Kerner, who has worked on sound effects for films such as “Black Caesar,” “Gymkata,” and “China O’Brien.”

The editors on “Hell Up In Harlem” were Peter Honess (“Troy,” “Highlander,” “It’s Alive”) and Franco Guerri, who previously worked as a camera operator on the Larry Cohen film “Bone” and as an assistant editor on “Black Caesar.”

hellupinharlem3The music for “Hell Up In Harlem” was performed by soul icon Edwin Starr, who took over the job from James Brown (who did the work for “Black Caesar”). The score was composed by Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren, who wrote numerous hits for The Jackson 5 over their careers and were top-tier music producers as part of “The Corporation”. The score also had input from Barry De Vorzon, who composed the theme song for “S.W.A.T.” and provided music for the film “The Warriors.”

The cast for “Hell Up In Harlem” is once again headlined by Fred Williamson, and features other returning players from “Black Caesar” in D’Urville Martin (“Dolemite”), James Dixon (“The Stuff,” “Q”), Gloria Hendry (“Live And Let Die”), and Julius Harris (“Super Fly”). The biggest new addition is Margaret Avery as the new love interest for Gibbs, who is best known from “The Color Purple.”

The story of “Hell Up In Harlem” picks up following a slightly altered recap of the conclusion to “Black Caesar,” and shows Gibbs recover and expand his criminal empire across the United States. Inevitably, he is betrayed once again, leading to one last bout of heated revenge.

The reception for “Hell Up In Harlem” wasn’t nearly as warm as it was for “Black Caesar”: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 13% (critics) and 52% (audience), along with an IMDb rating of 6.1.

hellupinharlem2“Hell Up In Harlem” was intriguingly filmed on weekends during the making of “It’s Alive,” because that was the only time when both Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson were available to make the film. Both men were working on different movies for different studios at the time, and most of the team had to pull numerous 7 day work weeks to get the film completed.

The fact that “Hell Up In Harlem” was a rushed production completed on weekends doesn’t at all surprise me, because the entire film feels rushed, strained, and exhausted. There clearly wasn’t as much passion thrown into the creation of the film as there was for “Black Caesar,” and the result is that the film feels a bit passive and routine, lacking a certain necessary energy from top to bottom.

One of my biggest issues with “Hell Up In Harlem” is that it negates the fantastic ending of “Black Caesar.” Also, the film really shouldn’t exist, as the story is effectively wrapped up in “Black Caesar.” The film was clearly solely made because of the profit potential for a sequel, and it ironically feels soulless because of it.

hellupinharlem5The score for “Hell Up In Harlem” isn’t quite as memorable or catchy as the one for “Black Caesar.” As good as Edwin Starr is, he is a downgrade from the power of James Brown. That said, both the theme song and “Big Papa” are pretty fantastic.

“Hell Up In Harlem” is entertaining as segments, but it doesn’t feel like a coherent work on the whole. I think this is mostly because of the way the film was thrown together in a rush, and the fact that the story had to be somewhat manifested out of thin air in the wake of “Black Caesar.”

People seem to like “Hell Up In Harlem” better in retrospect, surprisingly. I think that this is partially because it is a little more over the top than “Black Caesar,” which gives it some more campy value. However, fans of “Black Caesar” seem to be particularly harsh of the sequel for not living up to the quality of the original work, whereas most of the critics of “Black Caesar” were detractors from the world of mainstream cinema.

Some credit has to be given to “Hell Up In Harlem” for having a much cooler title than “Black Caesar,” but it also doesn’t immediately ring a bell as a sequel. I’m not sure whether that was intentional or not, or if it is necessarily an advantage or a hindrance to the film as a whole. I would be curious to get someone’s opinion of “Hell Up In Harlem” if they had never seen “Black Caesar,” and if that would make them more or less generous to it from a critical point of view.

Another thing that I do like in “Hell Up In Harlem” is the character development allowed for Helen, Revered Rufus, and Papa Gibbs. One of the weaknesses of “Black Caesar” is that there isn’t much detail in the accessory cast, and it is squarely focused solely on Gibbs throughout the run time. “Hell Up In Harlem” at least gives these three accessory characters time and room to grow and develop, which makes the film better for it.

hellupinharlem4The conclusion of “Hell Up In Harlem” tries to recapture some of the emotion and shock from “Black Caesar,” but lightning doesn’t strike twice, and it ultimately feels contrived and plays like a clear imitation.

Overall, “Hell Up In Harlem” is not awful, but it also isn’t particularly good. In comparison to “Black Caesar,” it doesn’t even hold a candle. The fact that it was created due to the financial success of the previous film rather than based on necessity or sense started it off with a bit of a handicap, and the rushed production didn’t do it any favors. It is still worth checking out if this is a genre that is up your alley, but it isn’t as essential of a watch as “Black Caesar.”

Larry Cohen Collection: “Black Caesar”

Black Caesar

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Next up in the Larry Cohen Collection is the blaxploitation classic “Black Caesar,” starring Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.

“Black Caesar” was written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen. It was his second directorial feature after “Bone,” and his first taste of real financial success in the film industry.

The cinematography on “Black Caesar” was provided by frequent Larry Cohen contributor Fenton Hamilton, who also worked on “It’s Alive,” “It Lives Again,” and the sequel to “Black Caesar”: “Hell Up In Harlem.”

The effects and makeup on “Black Caesar” were provided by Rick Baker, who has now won significant accolades as a special effects guru for films like “An American Werewolf in London,” “Men In Black,” “It’s Alive,” and “Ed Wood.”

blackcaesar4The producers on “Black Caesar” outside of Larry Cohen included the actor James Dixon (“God Told Me To,” “Q,” “The Stuff”), Peter Sabiston (“It’s Alive,” “Bone”), and Janelle Webb (“A Return To Salem’s Lot”).

The music for “Black Caesar” was provided by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, and is arguably one of the best blaxploitation soundtracks of all time.

The editor on “Black Caesar” was George Folsey, Jr., who also cut such movies as “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Coming To America,” and Larry Cohen’s first film, “Bone.”

The cast for “Black Caesar” is headlined by blaxploitation legend and former NFL star Fred Williamson (“From Dusk Til Dawn,” “MASH”), with an accessory cast filled out by Gloria Hendry (“Live And Let Die”), Art Lund (“It’s Alive III”), Val Avery (“Papillon,” “The Magnificent Seven”), and D’urville Martin (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Dolemite”).

The story of “Black Caesar” follows the meteoric rise and fall of a black hitman who works himself into organized crime by working contracts for the mob and blackmailing members of the NYPD.

blackcaesar2Famed singer Sammy Davis, Jr. reportedly turned down the lead role in “Black Caesar,” which opened the door for Fred Williamson to become one of the most iconic figures of the genre.

The story of “Black Caesar” is based on the acclaimed film “Little Caesar” from 1931 (not to be confused with the pizza chain), which was directed by Mervyn Leroy and starred Edward G. Robinson.

2009’s well-regarded blaxploitation parody “Black Dynamite” takes a few shots at “Black Caesar,” particularly in the content of the story and the soundtrack. For instance, the similarities between the tracks “Mama’s Dead” from “Black Caesar” and “Jimmy’s Dead” from “Black Dynamite” are, to say the least, a bit notable.

“Black Caesar” ultimately spawned a successful sequel, “Hell Up In Harlem,” which was also written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen. Williamson reprised his role despite his character’s death in “Black Caesar,” and the fact that he was under contract with another studio during the filming of the sequel. Cohen and co. ultimately filmed on the weekends while making “It’s Alive,” because it was the only time that Williamson was available.

I couldn’t dig up any financial information or a solid number on the production budget for “Black Caesar,” but it was definitely constructed on the cheap side and made a significant profit on it. The film currently holds a 6.1 score on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 55% (critics) and 65% (audience), making for a mixed reception. Regardless, it is considered a classic of the blaxploitation genre.

“Black Caesar” has a few pacing flaws, in that it feels like it skips forward rather quickly in parts rather than building up the rise of Gibbs through the criminal world. It still gets the point across, but it feels like there is a lot more detail and focus on the back end of the movie than the rise to power, which is kind of the opposite of most crime stories.

blackcaesar6I noticed that a lot of criticisms of the film at the time were focused on it being too violent or crass, which seem more like complaints leveled against the genre as a whole rather than this film. Within the crime and blaxploitation genres, “Black Caesar” is top of the line if you ask me, and is incredibly well crafted by most standards.

Fred Williamson’s at times charming and emotional performance arguably makes the movie what it is. He does a pretty fantastic of building a character who is violent, sinister, and criminal while also keeping the audience pulling for him throughout the story, which is no easy task for a murderous, megalomaniacal rapist like Tommy Gibbs.

blackcaesar5Audiences apparently hated the ending of “Black Caesar,” which concludes with Gibbs dying penniless in a gutter after being mobbed by a black gang. Personally, I thought it was a perfect conclusion.  It places Gibbs where he started the story, and allows the community which he scorned to take its revenge on him. Throughout the film, Gibbs has a crusading mentality that he is fighting for his community by forcing his way up the criminal ladder. However, this conclusion, which shows his old neighborhood in shambles, proves that this simply wasn’t at all the case, and that Gibbs  was just a selfish and grandiose jackass who abandoned his home the minute that he found success. Of course, this ending was partially erased in order for “Hell Up in Harlem” to exist, and Cohen even tried to change it for the wide release of “Black Caesar” before it went out.

blackcaesar3Last but not least, the climax of “Black Caesar” is at once memorable, shocking, fulfilling, and perfectly suited for the film. Gibbs takes his ultimate revenge on the racist police officer who assaulted him as a child (while working as a shoe shiner) by covering his face in shoe polish, forcing him to sing, and slowly beating him to death.

There are a fair number of similarities between “Black Caesar” and Brian De Palma’s take on “Scarface” from 1983. Both films depict an outsider going through a rise and fall in the criminal world, cursed by their own ambitions and greed. Personally, I like “Black Caesar” a little better than “Scarface,” if only on the strength of the leads. I’ve never been a fan of Pacino in “Scarface,” but Williamson in “Black Caesar” is top notch, and handles the complexities of his character well.

blackcaesar7Overall, “Black Caesar” is more than deserving on the praise that it has acclaimed over the years, and is a justified classic of the blaxploitation genre (and crime movies in general). I highly recommend it for fans of crime movies, blaxploitation flicks, or Larry Cohen in general. It provides an interesting window to see where Cohen’s experience as a filmmaker came from, and how it influenced his later films in the thriller and horror genres.