Directed by Larry Cohen, the same man behind It's Alice, God Told Me To and The Stuff, 1973's Black Caeser starts off by introducing us to a young teenager named Tommy Gibbs (Omer Jeffrey). He lives in the ghetto of New York City and makes some extra scratch shining shoes when he can, and when he can't he makes even more extra scratch as a job boy for some local mobsters. When his employers send him to the apartment of a bigoted crooked cop named John McKinney (Art Lund), Tommy gets a pretty serious beating and he winds up hospitalized, his leg permanently damaged.
Fast forward twelve years into the future (which would be the present day of 1973) and little Tommy is all grown up (and now played by Fred ‘The Hammer' Williamson). Grown up Tommy doesn't take any crap from anyone, and we see this made painfully clear when he shoots down a hood in cold blood at a neighborhood barber shop. He cuts off his victim's ear and hand delivers it to Cardoza (Val Avery), the current boss of a powerful mafia contingent, throwing it in his spaghetti! The guy knows how to make an entrance, you've got to give him that. With Tommy's message shouted out loud and clear, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what he's up to: Tommy is taking over.
As Tommy and his crew climb the ranks of the local criminal underworld, he finds himself having to deal with other, more personal matters. His girl, Helen (Gloria Hendry), leaves him for his friend Joe (Philip Roy) and then the father he barely knew (Julius Harris) shows up hoping to ride his son's coattails to fame and fortune. As Tommy tries to keep his increasingly complicated personal life straight, he comes to the realization that he's made as many, if not more, enemies than he has friends and that there are a lot of people who would very gladly see him put six feet under.
Set over two decades , Black Caesar is a pretty rock-solid crime film that obviously attempts to cash-on on the Blaxploitation film craze of the seventies. Essentially a star vehicle for former pro football star Williamson, who really does make the most of it. The guy just oozes ‘cool' in pretty much every frame of the film and it's hard to imagine the movie working nearly as well as it does with another actor in the part (the film did well enough that they'd have him reprise the role a year later in Hell Comes To Harlem). We can buy him as the tough guy that Tommy needs to be in order to make a go of his attempts to control the city, but he handles the more dramatic side of the story just as well. Tommy loses as much as he gains over the course of the story and Williamson's performance makes us believe in the character.
Of course, the fact that there are a lot of fun supporting players surrounding him doesn't hurt things at all. Gloria Hendry as the love interest in not only easy on the eyes but just as cool as Williamson when it comes to screen presence and style. Julius Harris as Tommy's conniving father is effectively pathetic and Val Avery as the mafia kingpin Tommy his first strike against is also fun in the part.
Cohen paces all of this quite well. The Manhattan location photography is perfect, the inner city really providing the perfect backdrop for the story to play off of, with all of New York's crazy seventies scuzz and style spicing up every scene. Never one to rise above using sex and violence to keep things exciting, Cohen throws in those elements when he needs to in order to keep the titillation factor high enough to work as a drive-in picture. At the same time, the story unfolds with the right amount of character development and detail to work as more than just a mix of The Godfather style mob drama and Blaxploitation style insanity. This one stands out from the pack, the film is memorable (a great James Brown score certainly helps here) and entertaining, managing to use its locations and the strengths of its cast to overcome the limitations of its modest budget. This is Cohen and Williamson at the top of their game.
Olive Films gives Black Caesar its Blu-ray debut in a nice AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. Detail and texture are definitely advanced over previous presentations not only in close up shots where you'd no doubt expect it but in medium and long distance shots as well, where the grit of various locations comes into play visually speaking. Grain is present throughout but never overpowering or distracting while black levels look good. Skin tones seem accurate and colors are nicely reproduced. No noise reduction or edge enhancement is ever noticeable, nor are there any compression artifacts to complain about. This is a very solid picture.Audio:
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track and it sounds pretty solid. Clarity is good while hiss and distortion are non-issues throughout playback. The score and effects, gun shots in particular, have good presence. No problems to report here, this no frills mix gets the job done quite nicely.Extras:
Aside from a theatrical trailer, menu and chapter selection there are no extras on this disc. The Larry Cohen commentary from the old MGM DVD has not been ported over, unfortunately.Final Thoughts:
Well, despite the fact that it doesn't carry over the commentary from the old DVD release (which was a very good track that deserves to be preserved) this is otherwise a pretty nice presentation. The movie definitely looks and sounds better than it has on previous home video releases. As to the film itself? Black Caesar holds up well, an entertaining slice of decidedly seventies cinema that entertains and enthralls. Recommended.