Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Guy From Harlem (1977)

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Who's the black private dick / That's a sex machine to all the chicks? Well, that would have to be The Guy From Harlem, a bizarre blaxploitation effort that features some of the poorest production i've seen outside of a Bloody Nightmares film. This one really has it all: a director lacking a rudimentary knowledge of storytelling, retina-burning 70s decor, actors who wouldn't cut it in community theatre, and the fight scenes.. wow, the fight scenes. Despite these (obvious, glaring) flaws, for those in the right state of mind - and an appreciation for the goodness of badness - there is plenty to enjoy here. The Guy From Harlem is shit, but it's deliriously entertaining shit.

Loye Hawkins is Al Connors, the eponymous Guy From Harlem, and as the title credits roll - and roll they do, as the film's entire credits run at the beginning, over scenes of Al driving around the city and backed by the oddly catchy Guy From Harlem theme song - we'll quickly notice that Al isn't actually in Harlem. In fact, Al works as a private detective in sunny Miami, Florida, though (as he mentions repeatedly) he cut his P.I. teeth working the mean streets of Harlem. Thankfully all of that growth and interesting material is in his past, so we can see him fuck around aimlessly in Miami.

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Al seems to have a comfortable living, and an office that looks suspiciously like a pre-school classroom. He also has a reputation as a bit of a ladies man, which he puts into practice whenever a hint of a vagina enters his field of vision. He's visited by David McLeod, an old friend (from HARLEM) and CIA agent who wants Connors to take on the job of protecting the lovely Mrs. Ashanti, wife of a diplomat from "an African nation". McLeod warns about the international repercussions of Al sexing up this African Queen/Princess (the film seems confused about which), but all is fair in love and greasily hitting on the partners of foreign dignitaries.

The two stay at a hotel, pretending to be husband and wife, but this ruse is quickly seen through by a parade of baddies who - in attempting to kidnap Ashanti - are rapidly brought down by Al's street-perfected fighting style. First there's a syringe-wielding masseuse whom Al scares off by watching her rub down the Princess (which - yes - is creepy), then a room service attendant in drag, and finally a group of thugs whom are taken down by some patented Al-fu. The pair then move onto a safe spot - an apartment owned by one of Al's former conquests - before plowing through the seventh commandment. Al delivers Ashanti safe and sound, and they all live happily ever after.

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Except that we're only about half way through the movie. How episodic. Now we move on to the bulk of the plot, where Al is visited at his office by "legitimate businessman" Harry De Bauld, who - along with his more sedate - irritate Al's secretary before gesticulating wildly about his kidnapped daughter. Apparently she's been taken by Big Daddy, the other gangster in town, who was also behind the plot to kidnap the African Princess/Queen/whatever. Harry wants Al to be the one to make the trade (of drugs and money) for his daughter, and - after realizing that the daughter would make a fine conquest - decides to take the job.

However, Al decides to ignore what he's actually been paid to do, and instead takes on Big Daddy's cronies by himself. He cleverly tracks down their secret hide-out/shack, and takes down the baddies one by one, in some of the most confounding scenes of action ever to be put on film. Limbs are flung with wild abandon, and bodies crash to the ground seemingly randomly, but Al - of course - comes out on top. He's the man from Harlem. However, there's one fly in the ointment - Harry's daughter Wanda (who had to fight off some icky advances from Big Daddy's men) has no interest in going back to her corrupt father. Instead, the two return to the apartment of Al's lady-friend (who seems a bit upset that he's using her place as a love shack), where they proceed to screw. Professional.

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While Harry is a bit upset at first that Al has taken the drugs to the police instead of making the trade, he is pleased to have his daughter back. The only problem is that Big Daddy wants Al dead, and that doesn't sit well with Al (or Wanda, who Al has decided to commit himself to), so a meeting is set up for the two to work out their differences. Big Daddy is a big, blond body-builder, so Al's decision to decide his fate with hand-to-hand combat may seem like an odd decision, but this is the Guy From Harlem! Big Daddy's goons are taken out by Harry's men, while Big Daddy gets thrashed by Al's fists (and feet) of fury. Al and Wanda walk off into the sunset, obviously looking forward to The Guy From Harlem 2.

The Guy From Harlem 2 never materialized. In fact, director Rene Martinez Jr. only made one other film, and it has a rather controversial title (now THAT I need to see). Hopefully - though improbably - Martinez's skills improved for that film, as here we're dealing strictly with amateur hour. The camera ignores the most basic rules of composition, and when wide shots cut to close-ups suddenly the players switch positions. Actors flub lines, or immediately repeat seemingly improvised dialogue, and it's just left in! The camera is locked down, making the action scenes look particularly odd and static - even when the actors are flamboyantly rolling around.

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Performances either have the actors chewing on the scenery, or so sedate it looks like they are about to fall asleep. The general feeling seems to be that Loye Hawkins is terrible as Al Connors, but I actually think he shows a reasonable amount of charisma, and manages not to stumble over most of his dialogue. I mean, the whole film seems to have been shot in single takes, so Hawkins deserves some credit for not botching his lines left and right. Compare his performance to the female leads, who were obviously picked for their looks - and willingness to disrobe - rather than their ability to deliver the (awful) dialogue convincingly. Steve Gallon  as Harry De Bauld seems to at least be having some fun, but the villains are awful across the board - especially in the unnerving scenes when they are pawing on their female captive. The look of the whole thing makes it feel like a snuff film could break out at any moment.

Rafael Remy did the cinematography on this project and it's frankly hard to believe that he had previous credits on a number of films, because every shot here looks flat and ugly. Lighting and sound credits are fine, though it says a lot about this film that these minor examples of technical competence are even worthy of being mentioned. Sets are minimal, and those that are shown are about as garish and blindingly awful as you might expect. Beautifully wretched.

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The Guy From Harlem is presented in a 4:3 (1.33:1) ratio which is spotted with damage, grain, and missing frames which makes watching it feel like a real drive-in experience. I'm not sure what the original aspect ratio was, but it doesn't feel like much significant action is happening off the edges of the frame. Or, in the film at all to be honest. Incidental music by Dr. Cecil Graham is repetitive but unobtrusive, though it's the theme song by The Brand New Review that is likely to stick with you. I know I've been annoying my wife with it for the last few days.

This is part of the Millcreek 50 Martial Arts movie pack so, while it thankfully has a few chapter stops, everything else is bare bones. A shame, since something this inept must have some great stories behind it.

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Completely terrible while still being surprisingly watchable, The Guy From Harlem hits that sweet spot of badness that keeps you laughing in disbelief at what you're seeing. The acting, direction and writing are pathetic, but never become tedious and the film somehow manages to keep up momentum until the 90 minute mark. I'm not interested in the further adventures of Al Connors, but in all the film was a pleasant surprise and worthwhile for fans of bad cinema.

5 comments:

J.T. said...

How in the world did I miss this one growing up?

I'm pretty sure that I'd seen just about every blaxploitation film ever made during my formative years in Petersburg, VA.

Doug Tilley said...

I have no idea what sort of distribution the film had, though there were at least newspaper ads at some point - as seen in this article:
http://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/grindhouse-classics-the-guy-from-harlem/

If you do ever want to check it out, it's available on Archive.org:
http://www.archive.org/details/TheGuyFromHarlem

Dr Syn said...

They play this at least once a year on one of my local TV stations. I can't help but watch and get down.

He's such a mean, clean fighting machine...

candy Bowden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
candy Bowden said...

Rifftrax did a real good job riffing this turkey..Check it out if you get a chance..