BLACK CAESAR (1973) Blu-ray
Director: Larry Cohen
Olive Films

Inspired by Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s, cult writer/director Larry Cohen (IT'S ALIVE, GOD TOLD ME TO, THE STUFF) directs ex-footballer Fred Williamson in what is probably his best 1970s vehicle; BLACK CAESAR, the story of a tough kid raised in the ghetto, aspiring to be the godfather of Harlem, New York. With just a simple phone call to Sam Arkoff, the project quickly got off the ground and the results was another major hit for AIP (American International Pictures).

Tommy Gibbs (Omer Jeffrey) is a 13-year-old shoeshine boy running errands for the mob in Harlem. When Tommy is sent to the apartment of John McKinney (Art Lund, THE LAST AMERICAN HERO), a brutal, bigoted policeman on the take, he savagely beats the boy, hospitalizing him with permanent damage to one of his legs. While in the hospital, Tommy Gibbs has time to plan for his advancement in organized crime. Twelve years later, Tommy (Fred Williamson, HAMMER) is all grown up and decked out. He shoots a gangster having a shave in a barbershop, slices of his ear and delivers it to Cardoza (Val Avery, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR), head of the local Mafia family. He tosses the ear (a prop made by FX wiz Rick Baker) in his plate of spaghetti, and he soon muscles his way through the syndicate, taking over the Italian mob with his strong-arm clan, and making more enemies than anyone else residing in Manhattan.

As epic (taking place from 1953 to 1972) as a low budget independent film shot outside a studio can be, BLACK CAESAR provides an enticing mix of exploitive action and melodrama, with nice supporting performances by Gloria Hendry (BLACK BELT JONES) as Tommy's girl who leaves him for his educated lawyer friend Joe (Philip Roy, THE SERGEANT), D'Urville Martin (DOLEMITE) as a scoundrel posing as a minister in order to reap profits for the underworld, Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE) as Tommy’s estranged father who comes back for a visit after his offspring’s adulthood notoriety, Minnie Gentry (COME BACK, CHARLESTON BLUE) as Tommy’s long-suffering working-maid mother and William Wellman Jr. (THE BORN LOSERS) as a shady lawyer who back-stabs Tommy. Don Pedro Colley (BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, SUGAR HILL) has a small part as one of Tommy’s henchman (and a great restaurant death scene) and familiar character actor (and Cohen film regular) Andrew Duggan (THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER) has an uncredited role as young Tommy’s shoeshine patron, the film’s first casualty. The legendary James Brown provides the appropriately funky score which can be soft and sentimental when needed, especially with the soulful track “Momma’s Dead” which is played when Tommy is mourning at his mother’s gravesite and making peace with his father at the same time.

With a title that is taken from the 1931 Edward G. Robinson gangster film LITTLE CAESAR (of which this could be considered a remake of), BLACK CAESAR is likely in most fan’s top-ten Blaxploitation film lists, even though it does owe much to the gangster genre, as well as the current hit of the day, THE GODFATHER (a Manhattan marquee for the Coppola groundbreaker can be spotted here, as it was shot in 1972). THE GODFATHER influence can be seen in some of the more violent, over-the-top scenes, including when the well-guarded mansion of a mafiosa is raided by Tommy’s crew, as they proceed to toss the cold-cut eating slaughtered victims in the swimming pool. Another great bit shows off the permit-less guerilla style of filmmaking in a wild scene where a taxi cab carrying a wounded Tommy drives up on a busy Manhattan sidewalk to get away from the trigger-happy pursuers. As one of the most detestable villains you’ll ever see, Lund is great as the racist cop, tormenting Tommy throughout the entire film. At the end, Tommy gets back at McKinney, applying black shoe polish to his bloody face, forcing him to sing Al Jolson's "Mammy," and pounding his head in with a wooden shoebox. Definitely one of the cinema's most vile conceptions of somebody getting their "just desserts!" Cohen directed Williamson again in an immediate sequel, HELL UP IN HARLEM which hopefully will see a Blu-ray release in the near future.

Previously available on DVD in 2001 from MGM (through their “Soul Cinema” line), Olive Films now presents BLACK CAESAR on Blu-ray (as well as standard DVD) utilizing MGM’s recent HD transfer. The 1080p image preserves the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it looks spectacular while retaining the gritty look of the oiginal production. Colors are bright, fleshtones look realistic, and the filmic grain is handled well throughout the presentation. Detail is also sharp, while contrasts are fine and black levels also look appropriate. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio sound mix offers a fine listening experience; dialogue and sound effects are crisp and clean, while Brown’s score comes out raw and boisterous at the same time. No subtitle options are included. The only downside to this Blu-ray release is that they didn’t carry over Cohen’s terrific audio commentary from the old MGM disc, but the original trailer (which borrows music from PSYCH-OUT!) is included. (George R. Reis)