The Cohen Case Files: Hell up in Harlem (1973)

Written, Produced and Directed by Larry Cohen

Note: Since Hell up in Harlem is a sequel to Black Caesar, this review will contain SPOILERS regarding certain plot points (including the ending) of Black Caesar.

I usually have no problem overlooking the seams when it comes to a Larry Cohen film. I’ve grown accustomed to cheaply done effects, amateurish acting by featured extras, sound that sometimes fail to sync up (including the occasional line of dialogue where a character’s mouth never moves), and guerilla filming techniques that can lead to muddy cinematography at times. I have no problem with these issues because Cohen’s films also feature sharp scripts, richly drawn characters, intense lead performances, and biting social commentary. Unfortunately, Hell up in Harlem features almost none of the redeeming aspects I’ve mentioned while also looking more threadbare than many of his low budget productions.

The first thing to understand when talking about Hell up in Harlem is how Black Caesar managed to have a sequel since Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) was killed at the end of that film. It turns out he was killed only in the home video version (both in its VHS release in the old days and in its more recent DVD releases), but not in the original film that played in theaters in 1973. Cohen’s original ending was to have Tommy get killed but preview audiences were angered by the ending, so Cohen trimmed off the moment of Tommy’s death, leaving it more ambiguous. It goes without saying, Tommy’s death is the superior ending to Black Caesar, but that doesn’t really matter when talking about the sequel.

Hell up in Harlem begins in the middle of the climax from Black Caesar with new footage revealing crooked District Attorney DiAngelo (Gerald Gordon) as the man who ordered the hit on Tommy. Helen (Gloria Hendry), Tommy’s ex-wife, goes to DiAngelo, begging him to arrest Tommy before he gets killed, only to quickly realize her mistake when DiAngelo sends “Irish” (James Dixon (!), reprising his role from Black Caesar) to assassinate Tommy.

After recycling the footage from Black Caesar of Tommy getting shot and killing “Irish,” the new story begins with Tommy’s father (Julius W. Harris) rescuing the wounded Tommy and hiding the ledgers that played such an important part in the plot of the first film. Using a group of enforcers who are still loyal to him, Tommy is able to get treatment at a hospital and blackmail DiAngelo into dropping all charges against him and his father.

Let me pause in this plot description to point out the numerous problems with this set up.

First, why is Helen so desperate to keep Tommy from being killed? In Black Caesar, he beat and raped her and she eventually left him for his best friend Joe (Philip Roye), having two children with her new husband. Eventually, Tommy’s enemies killed Joe, leaving Helen a widow with two young children. Helen spent most of the second and third acts of Black Caesar hating Tommy and the violence he committed and was the cause of.

Second, who the hell is DiAngelo? He was not in the first film, yet he is introduced in the opening scene here as though he is the main bad guy giving the orders to Tommy’s enemies. I understand that all of Tommy’s major enemies were dead by the end of Black Caesar, but at least introduce DiAngelo as the new villain that he is and not as someone the audience should recognize.

Third, why would Tommy’s father come to his aid? In Black Caesar, Tommy almost killed him out of revenge for abandoning him and his mother years before. Cohen does at least provide Tommy a line asking his father not abandon him when he needs him a second time, but his father is awfully quick to help a son who professed to hate him and want him dead.

Cohen seems to want both a sequel that depends on characters and plots from the first film while ignoring other plot points and completely changing character motivations. It’s a cheap trick that is beneath a filmmaker as talented as he is.

Moving on with the plot of the film.

Free of charges, Tommy partners with his father to rebuild his empire by killing the drug dealers working for DiAngelo so he can take over the territory. At the same time, he seeks to punish Helen for turning on him (keep in mind, he beat and raped her) by taking her children away and raising them as his own.

As slapdash as the film feels in the early going (it was quickly put into production after Black Caesar became a hit and was actually released later in the same year), at least Tommy stays somewhat in character as the mean bastard he was in the first film. But with the introduction of Jennifer (Susan Avery), Tommy’s new love interest, the film flies off the rails and loses any connection it once had with what made Black Caesar such a compelling film.

Jennifer is a devout Christian who is a member of the congregation at a church run by Reverend Rufus (D’Urville Martin), Tommy’s former associate who found God. Rufus initially wants nothing to do with Tommy and doesn’t believe his sudden claims that he is not in the drug business and is only interested in making Harlem safe for its residents by running the dealers out of the neighborhood. At first it seems that Tommy is only saying this to look good to Jennifer, but as the movie goes on, Cohen expects us to believe that Tommy is a semi-reformed man.

Let me pause, once again, to point out more flaws in this plot progression.

First, Tommy’s father has the fastest transformation from mostly innocent bystander to cold-blooded gangster in the history of film. In one scene, he’s a confused man struggling to deal with the violence around him, the next scene, he’s dressed like a stereotypical movie pimp, taking Helen’s children from her arms with a sadistic sneer on his face.

Second, Jennifer is a major drain on the film’s plot. She (and to a lesser extent, Reverend Rufus) is needed to supposedly move Tommy away from a life of crime. But Tommy’s attitude never changes from being an angry, arrogant, violence-prone asshole when he is supposed to be reformed. But as it turns out, Jennifer is not even needed as a plot device (and really, that’s all she is—this is not the film for you if you’re looking for multi-dimensional female characters), as Tommy and his father have a falling out and Tommy retires, leaving the business to his father, chiding him that he won’t last long on his own.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled plot synopsis.

The film jumps ahead three years to find Tommy and Jennifer living in Beverly Hills. But trouble finds him in the form of Zach (Tony King), one of his former enforcers who declares war on Tommy’s father and tries to kill them both. Of course, it’s no surprise to learn that Zach is backed in his efforts by DiAngelo.

If Black Caesar had simply been a straight Blaxploitation action film, I honestly wouldn’t have any problem with the way Hell up in Harlem rewrites major character motivations and turns Tommy into an avenger who wants to rid the streets of drugs. But Black Caesar was a solid morality tale grafted on to a gangster melodrama that had the guts to make its protagonist a violent monster. Cohen crafted an entertaining and emotionally satisfying rise and fall of a gangster film out of Black Caesar that ended with Tommy’s death. It was a complete arc. Hell up in Harlem negates almost everything done right by that first film all the way through to its misguided ending that tries to turn Tommy into a mythical antihero.

Legend has it that Cohen shot Hell up in Harlem at the same time as It’s Alive. The story goes that he would fly into New York for the weekend and work on the film and then fly back to Los Angeles to shoot It’s Alive during the week. Apparently Williamson was only available to shoot on the weekends, necessitating this kind of insane workload to get the film into theaters as soon as possible.

Like most legends or show business rumors, there is probably a kernel of truth at its center with much of the details surrounding it being apocryphal. But Hell up in Harlem certainly feels like it was thrown together over the course of a few scattered days. Not only is the script lacking in the wit, social commentary, and just plain weirdness that Cohen is known for, the acting, editing, direction are all sloppy. There is a lack of focus to the film that most Cohen fans will find dispiriting.

If you enjoyed Black Caesar and are considering watching Hell up in Harlem, don’t bother. Just stick with the first film and its much better original ending.

Fun Fact: In many scenes, a double is used for the oft-absent Williamson with the camera placed behind him and the other actors responding to dialogue that is obviously dubbed in by Williamson in a studio. After viewing the completed film, Williamson reportedly complained to Cohen that the double was too fat to convincingly play him. He was right.

James Dixon Sighting: Reprising his role as Tommy’s would-be assassin from Black Caesar. He is also credited as an associate producer.

Here’s an awesome trailer for a bad movie:

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