Friday, March 20, 2009

The Guy from Harlem (1977): or, Al Connors, International Brother of Mystery

Rene Martinez Jr.'s 1977 blaxploitation effort The Guy from Harlem is, there's no getting around it, a bad movie. In fact, it's one of those movies that goes beyond bad. With its high-school Senior Play-level acting, its horrendously choreographed action sequences, its static-to-the-point-of-paralysis camerawork, and its consistently worst-of-the70s set design, it's a movie that practically dares you to find something good about it. Hell, it even largely shies away from blood and sex, two of the virtually required qualities of the subgenre.

Why then did I find myself enjoying it so much?

Maybe it was the funky, Isaac Hayes-ish title song over the credits that first started me boogeying toward The Guy from Harlem's side. ("UNGH! The Guy from Harlem! [Watch out!] That cat's a baaaad dude! [Get on down!] Watch the moves! [The Guy from Harlem!] He's a mean, clean, fightin' machine!") Maybe it was the deliciously Ed Wood-ish, passionately amateurish aesthetic apparent from the unnecessary pre-credit scene and the way the character-credit crawl played over the *front* of the movie rather than the end--as if acknolwedging no one would stay around that long, so best to get the credits up there now. Maybe it was the way emotively challenged star Loye Hawkins seemed completely convinced of his own awesomeness and badassery, despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary. These things all played a part, no doubt.

But perhaps the real reason is something metaphysical--the way a movie can sometimes sink so deeply into the depths of Bad that it comes out the other side of the wormhole. It happens, right?

Or maybe there's just something wrong with me.


Loye Hawkins IS Al Connors, Miami-based P.I. known to friends and enemies as The Guy from Harlem. (I can only assume that no other Harlem natives lived in Miami at the time.) At one point Connors explains seriously to one of his clients that "Harlem is the experience playground of all people interested in becoming detectives," and it's obvious that he's very much in demand--as soon as he gets to his office and has some innuendo-laden banter with his secretary Sue, he receives a visit from his old friend David McCloud, CIA Agent (ROCKING the pink leisure suit), who has a job that only The Guy from Harlem can handle.

It seems that Princess Ashanti, "a person from an African Nation...she's the wife of a head of state," is coming into town for a meeting with the US Secrectary of State, which is presumably a photo-op/meet-and-greet, since the Princess herself tells Connors later she gets bored while her hubby is doing all this country-running stuff. The CIA has reason to believe someone might try to kidnap the Princess--a mysterious gangland drug lord named Big Daddy--which is why they've secretly moved the meeting from Washington DC to Miami--which kind of defeats the PR purpose, but let's move on.

McCloud wants Connors to be Ashanti's bodyguard, because "it's possible there could be a leak somewhere in the CIA," and so presumably none of the federal agents can be trusted. (Imagine!) Therefore they outsource security to Connors, giving him carte blanche to make his own arrangements for Ashanti's saftey without filling them in. Makes sense to me!

"Don't worry ma'am--we're with the Government."

Connors takes the case after McCloud answers his one and only question: "You want to know if she's cute? Yes, she's cute. But remember--INTERNATIONAL REPERCUSSIONS." His plan is to check into a hotel of his choosing as man and wife, spend the night, and deliver her to the meeting the next day. However, when a CIA agent who won't give his name calls Sue and asks for Connors' location, the patriotic secretary readily gives it to them...proving she's just not as hard boiled as she needs to be.

So basically what we have here is a story that could have been written by a couple of action-movie addicted 3rd graders with no idea how politics, crime-fighting, or gangland warfare actually work, but nonetheless want to incorporate it all. The acting is about that level too--the actors seem to know basically what they're supposed to say and when, but have no sense of the emotion of the scene, or even timing--repetitions and stepped-on lines are par for the course, and in fact get more frequent as the movie goes on. And the cinematography by Senor Miguel de Medio-shot Tripod makes the security cam footage from the women's dressing room at JC Penney's look positively dynamic. Or at least so I'm led to believe.

"Please--just try to relax."

So once Connors gets the *very* un-African-Continental sounding Princess to the hotel of his choice, he orders a masseuse for the jet-lagged Ashanti and a full bottle of J&B to help her relax. The lady masseuse who shows up immediately goes to the window and signals a couple of toughs outside--in PLAIN SIGHT of Connors--which understandably arouses his suspicions. He decides to watch the massage from the bedroom doorway--"for SECURITY PURPOSES," he assures the off-put princess--and thus foils the first kidnapping attempt.

After some extremely undiplomatic flirtation from Al which the princess is powerless to resist ("I'm very lucky to have you as my bodyguard!" "Baby, you don't know how lucky you are!"), Al orders some New York Strip steaks brought up to the room, even though the princess wants to eat out. ("No, for SECURITY PURPOSES, we have to eat up here!" Al informs her.) But when the maid brings in the room service tray, Al shocks us all by pulling an Austin Powers and leaping across the table to cold-cock the broad!

"It's a MAN, baby!"

You see, Al can smell a New York Strip a mile away, and there weren't any steaks on that tray, just a bottle of J&B and a Midnight Special. After an bad fight scene with the remaining toughs, Al takes Ashanti to his main squeeze's apartment, kicks the chick out, and settles in to protect the princess from everybody but himself.

While all this has been sometimes painfully, most often hilariously terrible cinema, the movie has a couple of points in its favor. For one thing, Al's aforementioned COMPLETE confidence in his own awesomeness, which seems unfounded and yet somehow manages to convince. (It helps that he's the best actor in the admittedly bad lot, keeping his velvet tones and smooth moves pumping even when his costars are stumbling over their lines or stepping on his.) Also, the decor of just about every room in the movie is so wonderfully 70s ugly-cool, it's kind of mesmerizing. The orange shag carpet that appears in at least two of the sets is particularly difficult to look away from.

Al and Ashanti finally GET IT AWN (though the movie seems very shy about going further than "beginning to undress and then fade to black"--again, I'm wondering if awkward 3rd graders wrote the script) and he delivers the princess to the meeting offscreen and returns to his office the next day to put more moves on Sue and go over his accounts.

They even had enough fabric left over to make an 8-track tape cozy!

At this point the movie breaks pretty neatly in half, as if it were meant to be marketed as two 45-minute episodes of the Al Connors Show rather than one coherent movie--and the second half has almost exactly the same plot set-up as the first. This time instead of Agent McCloud, Miami gang leader Harry Dubaul arrives to hire Al to retrieve his kidnapped daughter Wanda from the clutches of rival ganglord Big Daddy. He's to exchange $250K cash and $500K worth of drugs for Wanda, and get back with DuBaul's daughter alive and as much of the ransom still in his possession as possible.

The actor playing Harry DuBaul is Steve Gallon, and he is AWESOME. Like a jolly, foul-mouthed Don King with the volume turned up to twenty, Gallon seems to detonate his lines rather than speak them. Though his acting style has only one setting--FULL THROTTLE--he overwhelms all the other characters onscreen, Al included, and I was grinning like an idiot for every foot of filmstock he owned.

Big Daddy is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, says DuBaul--nobody ever sees him, and he has henchmen do all his dirty work. "All I know about him is this--he's big, six feet tall, and has a lot of muscles! Curly blond hair, and always wears these bands around his muscles! That's all I know!" Wow, he really *is* a man of mystery, isn't he?


So Al heads down to the local bodybuilders' gym to get the details of the drop from Big Daddy's right-hand man Jim. On his way in he goes right past a 6 foot blond dude with big armbands pumping iron in the front room, who glares at him significantly as he goes by. Damn, where could this shadow-man known as Big Daddy be hiding?

Anyway, the rest of the movie deals with Al's mission to rescue Wanda from Big Daddy's goons and his eventual confrontation with the pasty, musclebound drug lord himself. Highlights of this section of the movie include Wanda's incredibly confrontational bad attitude that seems to be the only thing protecting her from rape at the hands of the henchman assigned to guard her (well, that and the guards bottomless stupidity and almost adorable hesitancy to actually make good on his threats--at one point he even goes all sour grapes after being rebuffed particularly roughly: "Ah, you're probably no good anyway!"), Jim's incredible powder-blue leisure suit, Martinez's...interesting decision to film Al's action-packed fight scenes from about thirty yards away, another appearance by the endlessly entertaining Harry DuBaul, and of course the final fight between Al and Big Daddy for pride, honor, and triumph over racism.

Let me say again--by just about any standard (even mine!) this movie is BAD BAD BAD. The acting, the cinematography, the editing (more than once entire exchanges of dialogue are repeated, seemingly because the actors ran out of things to say and so went back to the Important Bits)--nothing raises its gloriously Afro'd head above amateur hour at any point, and in fact seldom even approaches it. Even the n-bombs flung around by Big Daddy's gang seem half-hearted, and while Martinez *does* finally give us a little nudity (Wanda takes a nicely gratuitous shower post-rescue), nobody seems that interested in backing up all of the movie's innuendo. And as for pacing, the movie really drags in the second half, with three too many repetitions of the initially entertaining but eventually tiresome rebuffed rape attempts by Big Daddy's henchman on Wanda.

Scintillating Action!

And yet, to steal a phrase from BC over at Horror Movie a Day, the movie reaches a point where it's *so* bad, it's kind of lovable. In spite of everything--hell, even because of it--I found myself grinning like an idiot almost all the way through, awash in trash-movie euphoria.

So can I recommend The Guy from Harlem? In good conscience, no--most people, even those who usually like bad movies, are probably going to hate it. But criticism is subjective by its nature, and I can only rate *my* experience of the film, which as I say was positive overall, even though it was for all the wrong reasons. Therefore I'm bucking the trends and giving The Guy from Harlem 2 thumbs for the fun it provided. Your mileage will almost CERTAINLY vary though--you were warned.

Nota Bene: Apparently director Rene Martinez made only one film after The Guy from Harlem, the amazingly un-PC titled The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger, starring the irrepressible Steve Gallon as a character named "Wildman Steve." I...kinda have to see this one now. For SCIENCE. ;)

"Eat it, Whitey!"


Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, when I get a Mill Creek box set I usually sample the first few minutes of all the movies, and from that opening scene I could tell that The Guy From Harlem was a stunning film. Those opening credits were mesmerizing, as I believe even extras were given recognition. Films like this one are folk art (or if you like it more edgy, "outsider art")like the works of Grandma Moses or Henry Darger. Their failures of perspective, anatomy or narrative logic are excused when they achieve effects that go beyond the conventional. Because movies are seen as a narrative art, naive works like this one don't get the same sort of consideration that other forms of folk art receive. But from your account, I'd say The Guy From Harlem belongs in some sort of museum. Thanks for previewing it for the rest of us.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel: You know, I never thought of it in those terms before, but you're exactly right! Low-budget filmmaking as folk art--really, it's so perfect and true, I'm amazed it never occurred to me before.

Thanks for adding another argument to my defense file of "bad" films! I'll footnote you in my definitive text on the subject. ;)

Emily said...

The fact that "Man #1" and "Man #2" get their names credited in the opening's wonderful, really and truly. I also like how because the title is in white text and the background is a sunny day, you can only read "uy ____m Ha____". It's super.

@hodgedude said...

We found this gem at now-closed movie rental place called "Videoholics" in Ottawa, Canada ... And were enthralled, even as cynical high schoolers. I must have watched this movie 20 times, and to this day friends (now in our 30s!) still recite dialogue. "Ohhhh... You're nice to squeeze!" Hoping for an all-star remake with Ian Ziering as Big Daddy, Jim Brown as David McCloud, and Loye Hawkins and Steve Gallon in their original roles. Also look for Martinez' other masterpiece, "Super Soul Brother." Gallon is the star!

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