Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Slams (1973)

Robbing a syndicate operation to the tune of one and a half million dollars must have sounded like a good idea at the time to Curtis Hook (Jim Brown), but a mutual double-cross between him and his partners leaves said partners dead and Hook wounded enough to get caught by the police.

Hook is able to hide the loot in the ruins of an amusement park before his arrest, and the cops can't put much beyond the carrying of a concealed weapon on him yet this still leaves him behind bars for one to five years. Worse still, the syndicate - and really, everyone else in his new prison home too, for the prison grapevine is strong - knows he stole from them and has put out a contract on his life.

The prison syndicate boss, a certain Capiello (Frank DeKova) isn't quite sure if he wants to see Hook dead by the hands of white supremacist Glover (Ted Cassidy), or if he'd rather get Hook to tell him where the money is hidden and kill him afterwards. Capiello and his allies aren't the only ones bothering Hook, either: the prison's major black gang leader Macey (Frenchia Guizon) would love to make nice with Hook, and he has difficulties taking "no" for an answer, while the chief of the prison guards (Roland Bob Harris) would really rather have Hook's loot for himself, even if that means putting pressure on Hook's newscaster girlfriend Iris (Judy Pace).

Hook is pretty good at surviving everybody's attentions, probably quite capable of surviving a full five years. When, however, plans are made to renovate the amusement park, breaking out becomes his only option if he wants to keep his hard-won gains.

The Slams' director Jonathan Kaplan may very well be the ultimate hired gun director. Middling major studio Hollywood thrillers, TV movies, TV shows and an Oscar-winning Jodie Foster joint are merrily dancing in his filmography. It's easy to forget Kaplan started his career as one hell of an exploitation filmmaker for the Cormans. How little seen a grand little movies like The Slams were before they hit Warner's overpriced DVD-R circuit surely didn't help the situation either. At least now, everybody interested have the opportunity to experience the short early phase of his career when Kaplan's movies showed something like an actual personality.

As is now much easier to witness, The Slams is a somewhat archetypal example of the prison movie, with all clichés you might ask for there and accounted for (though the genre-typical homophobia stops quite suddenly, and thankfully early, after half an hour or so), which is of course enough to confuse IMDB-type reviewers into calling a tight and at least partially clever script "weak". In truth, Kaplan's film not only hits the required genre beats, but uses them as the rhythmic base on which a taught, sometimes funny, never boring crime movie is built. It's the sort of script where every single element connects quite wonderfully with every other element with even seeming comic diversions - which are even funny, in their dry way - actually there to create veracity for the film's low budget prison movie world.

Plus, how weak can a prison movie script be whose protagonist class-consciously interprets the American love for identity politics as a form of gang warfare (or is it the other way round?), as just another way for "The Man" to keep the lower classes fighting each other instead of him? Of course, in a film that stands in the political tradition of most exploitation and blaxploitation movies, making this assessment only ever motivates our hero to take his money and run.

Kaplan does exceedingly fine work with what the script offers too, keeping the action sudden and - sometimes nearly shockingly so - brutal, never filming scenes too straightforwardly to have them become boring yet also never showing off too much with his abilities.

Brown is also in very fine form here, making Hook believably human and sympathetic even though his character really is not a very nice person. For my tastes, Brown's acting mix of good old charisma, small meaningful gestures and physicality fits a movie as straightforward as The Slams is at its core best.

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