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Hell up in Harlem 
Written by: on June 1st, 2006

Theatrical Release Date: United States, 1973
Director: Larry Cohen
Writer: Larry Cohen
Cast: Fred Williamson, Margaret Avery, Gloria Hendry, D’urville Martin, Julius W. Harris, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen

DVD released: October 16th, 2001
Approximate running time: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: R
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono French
Subtitles: French, Spanish
DVD Release: MGM
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $14.95

Synopsis: The man wants Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) dead because he is possession of a ledger which names many important people doing illegal activities. After a failed attempt on his life Tommy hides the ledger and regroups with his gang while he heals his wounds. Tommy with the help of his father exacts his revenge on those who tried to kill him. Tommy decides to retire from the game when an old flame of his Helen (Gloria Hendry) is found murdered and all fingers point towards Tommy’s father as the culprit. Now in charge Papa Gibbs wastes no time taking out his competition. What he didn’t count on was his right-hand man Zach double crossing him. Tommy is forced to return to New York to avenge his fathers’ death. This time his enemies are playing for keeps and Tommy is faced with the ultimate choice of giving his life to save his son Jason’s life.

Hell Up in Harlem was released in just ten months after Black Caesar, which in itself is an amazing achievement since this time around everything is bigger and better. Larry Cohen takes the action outside of Harlem and has Tommy Gibbs traveling from coast to coast disposing of his enemies’. The use of real locations which happened more out of budget restraints actually pays off more than any well-constructed set ever would.

There is an immediacy to what is going on in Tommy Gibbs world as Cohen shots the film’s most chaotic moments mostly with handheld camera work which only brings the action closer to the viewer. The direction is lucid and Cohen has a style that he infuses throughout the film which gives the overall piece a more polished look then the sum of its budget.

Of course, if you are going to make a sequel to Black Caesar, then you will need Fred Williamson, who played Tommy Gibbs in that film. Williamson returns as the ruthless Tommy Gibbs and he has added some swagger too his already overflowing machismo. Watch out for Williamson and a woman in a bikini, as they square off in a kung fu showdown. Williamson also stirs up some controversy with his love scene which for its time showed a lot more man then what was considered acceptable.

His greatest moment in the film is when he is chasing after Zach his former right-hand man in an airport. When Tommy misses the flight, he runs across the airport to catch another flight that should arrive in Los Angles at the same time. And while in Flight he has to knock off another assassin. Then once the plane has landed he is off and running again. He finally catches his man after chasing him from coast to coast. This has to be one of the longest and most inspired chases in cinema history.

James Brown was originally hired to score Hell Up in Harlem and American International would reject his music in favor of a score by Edwin Starr. The score while effective, it is not as inventive as the music composed by James Brown composed for Black Caesar. And James Brown’s rejected score would resurface as an album under the title The Payback.

The actors all give solid performances and though some of the plot borders on unbelievable, it still is able to remain entertaining tell the very end. The action is raw and often brutal in this one with a few of the murders pushing good taste to the limit. Like all films with in this genre this one also has many hilarious one liners. Overall Hell Up in Harlem, lives up to its name and then some.

The DVD:

MGM’s transfer looks pretty good considering it is now nearly five years old. And Hell Up in Harlem is presented in an anamorphic widescreen that preserves the films original aspect ratio. Grain is noticed and some of the wider angle shots lack the detail present in the rest of the film. Colors look spectacular as they faithfully represent the early 1970’s decor.

This release comes with two audio options English and French language tracks which are presented here in a Dolby Digital mono. There a few minor instances where the audio fluctuates and outside of these minor occurrences the audio is crisp and easy to understand. The music and effects sound dynamic despite the limitations of the mono audio mix.  French and Spanish subtitles have been included.

Extras consist of the films original theatrical trailer and a teaser trailer. The main extra is an audio commentary with the films writer/director Larry Cohen who as always is full of wonderful stories about the making of his films.

Overall MGM’s DVD release of Hell up in Harlem is the best this film has looked on home video to date and it comes with an amazing audio commentary with Larry Cohen which in itself is almost worth the price of admission.

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