Friday, November 18, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Black Samson (1974)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Samson (Rockne Tarkington) has made quite a life for himself - he owns a well-loved, permanently overcrowded strip bar, has a big stick to hit people with, a (probably doped up to the gills) lion lying around on the bar's counter and is very much in love with his girlfriend Leslie (Carol Speed) who just happens to have the biggest afro I've ever seen.

Samson deserves all that, too, because he is a deeply righteous man who lets the local elderly alcoholic spend the night in his bar, and helps drug addicts clean up their act. Well, after he has threatened them with his stick. He's also the man responsible for keeping his part of town clean from two larger criminal organizations.

The more harmless one of these organizations is lead by his old friend Arthur (Michael Payne) - who also moonlights as a perfectly legal and supremely terrifying undertaker - and is not much of a problem, but the mafia family of the Nappas is quite a different thing.

Old man Nappa (Titos Vandis, the first mafioso with a Greek accent) might be the Gandhi of organized crime abhorring violence and spurting ridiculous wisdom whenever the camera meets him, but his nephew Johnny (William Smith) is quite a bit less tolerant.

Johnny has a few problems with things like impulse control and a tendency to react violently to, well, everything, and he really really hates Samson, so he's planning on killing our hero and taking over the bar owner's area, if his uncle likes it or not.

That's easier said than done, though. As Johnny's uncle would say: "Piece of cake? I know a man who choked on a piece of cake".

Samson doesn't have much of a problem with surviving the first murder attempts of Johnny's goons, what with his would-be killers bringing no weapons when they are trying to kill someone and him always armed with the Stick of Hitting +5, so Johnny has to get creative. And he has some brilliant ideas. The first one is letting his own girlfriend (Connie Strickland) work as an undercover stripper at Samson's place to get info on his enemy's activities. Not surprisingly, that doesn't work out too well for anyone, and only when Johnny's plans get more baroque with blowing up Samson's bar, kidnapping Leslie (this time with armed men!) and pushing his girlfriend out of a driving car so that she will tell Samson of Leslie's whereabouts, does our hero have to work a bit harder for his money.

As one might surmise from the more bonkers details of Black Samson's plot, it isn't a film bound to win the Across 110th Street memorial prize for intelligent and politically sound blaxploitation movies, but it is such an enthusiastic piece of low-brow fun that I don't think that matters too much in its particular case. It's not a completely stupid film either. Most of Black Samson's characters (ignoring the psychopathic Johnny Nappa) aren't deep, yet are at least two-note instead of one-note characters. Take Arthur (played by Payne with insane enthusiasm, bug-eyed stares, a love for cocaine and a tone of voice that make him look like Flavor Flav born too early), who is definitely a bastard, a drug dealer and a coward but still stops short of taking sexual favours from Leslie to help Samson. While that's not necessarily character depth, it's more than I'd have expected to find in a blaxploitation film directed by a future TV workhorse like Charles Bail.

It is also of interest to note that Samson is supposed to be a Black Nationalist of some kind, and still allowed to be the film's hero and source of inspiration to the people of his quarter. Compare that to the way politicized African Americans are shown in most other blaxploitation movies and be amazed.

Bail's direction is mostly just workmanlike, without any of the more psychedelic flourishes you sometimes find in the genre (which would have fit the film's weirder ideas nicely), but the film doesn't drag and the action scenes - while they aren't exactly Hong Kong quality - are quite solid.

The actors seem to be having a lot of fun doing their respective things, too. I already mentioned Michael Payne's scenery-chewing, and that would be enough for a normal film. Surprisingly, Payne's performance is overshadowed by William Smith, who tries to be the most insanely insane bad guy in blaxploitation and mostly achieves his goal by smirking, shouting and punching like a loon. I was especially enamoured of the scenes with his uncle, which consist of him cursing and getting angrier by the second while still needing to keep smiling and his uncle spouting ridiculous words of wisdom.

Tarkington doesn't share in the overacting of his fellows and does instead the cool (yet funky, don't worry) hero bit very well indeed, while the actresses just don't have all that much to do except for looking pretty, crying and being kidnapped and roughed up - unfortunately a destiny all too typical of women not named Pam Grier in this genre.

I also need to point in the direction of the film's dialogue again that contains some great pearls of silliness (and probably wisdom). Did you for example know that the smell of death is not a nice smell, Johnny?

And then there's the film's grand finale that starts with a punch-up between the Stick of Hitting and a few mafiosi, turns into a peculiar car chase whose participants just steal a new car when they crash their old one, and ends with the bad guys being bombarded with household appliances, doors and mattresses. I think one of them is even killed by a flying fridge, which is hard to beat when it comes to inappropriate ways of dying.
It's all as pleasantly silly as one could wish for and exactly the sort of thing I hope for in my classic exploitation.

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