The Film: 4/5
Not only was the late Ossie Davis one hell of a actor, writer, and orator, but on several occasions he proved he could direct just as well as anything else he set his mind to. His first feature film as a director, the freewheeling 1970 action-comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem, makes its debut on Blu-ray.
Adapted from the 1965 crime novel written by Chester Himes that was the sixth adventure of his popular detective characters "Coffin Ed" Jones and "Gravedigger" Jones, Cotton opens with a rally and barbecue held in the heart of Harlem by the beloved Reverend Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart), who has raised $87,000 from his fawning parishioners to fund his ambitious "Back to Africa" campaign. When a group of masked gunmen open fire at the rally and steal the money Coffin Ed (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger (Godfrey Cambridge) are on the case. Their investigation turns over a few rocks and quickly reveals that the good reverend's intentions for the stolen money were not exactly Christian, but the cops are pressured by their superiors Captain Bryce (John Anderson) and Lieutenant Anderson (Eugene Roche) to lay off O'Malley. Meanwhile, the $87K has been stashed inside a bale of raw, unprocessed cotton that has fallen into the hands of local junk collector Uncle Budd (Redd Foxx) and is the object of desire for several of New York City's most undesirable criminal element, including the dangerous two-bit thug Calhoun (J.D. Cannon) and Reverend O'Malley himself, who must recover the money before his followers catch on to his greedy scheme.
I've never read the works of Chester Himes, but I am a bit of a crime novel junkie and Cotton Comes to Harlem is one of those books brought to wild, glorious life. Director Davis, who co-wrote the adaptation with Arnold Perl (a television scribe and documentary filmmaker who died the year after Cotton's theatrical release), brings Himes' slim narrative to the screen with its fast pace and memorable ensemble cast of characters intact and isn't afraid to embrace its offbeat cocktail of goofy humor and bloody violence. It's not the most original source material, but in the right hands it can still be great entertainment and that's exactly what Davis set to out to make with resounding success. As a director making his first motion picture when he was well into his fifties he showed impressive confidence in the punchy dialogue-driven scenes and also brings a youthful vitality to the action sequences, of which there are plenty. The story has barely begun before we get a robbery, shootout, and a hair-raising car chase that seems to taken equal inspiration from the silent comedies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the classic chase scene in Peter Yates' Bullitt. Shortly before that happens our heroes Coffin Ed and Gravedigger get into a minor scuffle with some black militants and they toss one of the guys in the air like they were cooking a pizza! A nighttime gun battle in a junkyard has people getting chunks of flesh torn away by bullets and bodies soaring through the air from explosions. These scenes pack in plenty of shameless excitement but Davis takes care to remind us that the dead don't always deserve to go so violently, even if they aren't the cleanest-living of citizens. The cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld (The Dion Brothers, Young Frankenstein) and Robert Q. Lovett's (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) editing help to make these set-pieces memorable in a film that doesn't rely on them solely to establish its identity.
What makes Cotton Comes to Harlem stand out from most action films of its time is how Davis brings the titular community to life in ways that most directors would easily disregard. The people of Harlem are not there to provide mere background extras. We meet a few of them and get a sense of who they are with just a few well-chosen lines of dialogue. Redd Foxx, between fame as a stand-up comedian and star of the classic television sitcom Sanford & Son, is a delight in his few on-screen moments as the loquacious homeless junk collector Uncle Budd and his haggling scene with junkyard proprietor "Honest Abe" Goodman (Lou Jacobi) plays like a sweet old-fashioned vaudeville comedy routine. Judy Pace (Frogs) is on hand to provide sex appeal (the scene where she seduces Dick Sabol's gullible uniform cop Jarema must have assisted many an impressionable young man through puberty back in the day) with a few touches of feminine guile and vulnerability as O'Malley's girlfriend Iris and she makes the pain she feels from his betrayal authentic. Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles) has a single scene as a pathetic junkie interrogated by Coffin Ed and Gravedigger whose ability to identify the masked crooks as white provides one of the film's funniest lines. Leonard Cimino (The Monster Squad) pops up briefly as a local Mafiaoso with an interest in the proceedings, and J.D. Cannon (Cool Hand Luke) makes for a menacing heavy in the second half of the story.
Calvin Lockhart (The Beast Must Die, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) just about steals the whole damn show as the ultra-slick and sleazy Reverend O'Malley, a regular snake oil salesman in prettier packaging ("a pimp with a chicken shit backbone", as Coffin Ed describes him...to his face) with equal amounts of smarm and charm to make for a perfectly duplicitous adversary. The more you get to know the more you might joyfully revel in his inevitable comeuppance. The real stars of Cotton Comes to Harlem are Raymond St. Jacques (They Live, Glory) and Godfrey Cambridge (Watermelon Man, The President's Analyst) as Coffin Ed and Gravedigger respectively. They make an excellent team and play off each other well with Ed stern and unamused as the bad cop and Gravedigger comfortable in his role as the cool, composed good cop. But neither man messes around when enforcing the law and they can get downright mean at times. The worst violence may happen to men in this movie but you might flinch when Coffin Ed slaps Iris pretty hard. Scenes like that serve to remind us of a different time when cops weren't all that concerned with reading suspects their Miranda rights and police brutality was the first and only option for quelling potential race riots. Now that I think of it, times haven't changed that much.
Though I wish greater effort had been put into making Cotton look terrific for its high-definition debut at least Kino Lorber's transfer stands tall compared to previous VHS and DVD releases from MGM. The 1.85:1 widescreen picture has been remastered in 1080p and for the most part looks pretty good with smooth, balanced flesh tones and improved details. Unfortunately the print is besieged by the occasional scratch and dirt fleck and contains more grain than necessary. It's shaky but in the end it serves the movie well enough, as does the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that offers a fine reproduction of the original mono sound. The music by Hair composer Galt MacDermot (which includes a few original tunes including the Davis-penned opening track "Black Enough (Ain't Now, But it's Gonna Be)" sung by Melba Moore), is the greatest beneficiary from this mix but the dialogue comes through both channels with decent clarity, though the ADR dips and rises throughout. English subtitles are also included.
The only bonus feature is the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes).
Cotton Comes to Harlem is a smart, cool, and fun thriller with enough memorable characters and spry humor to make it a refreshing change of pace from the grimmer action films that would come later in the 1970's. Though deserving of much better treatment at least this Blu-ray from Kino Lorber has enough going for it to make it a mild recommendation, but only for the film.