We began the evening this week by looking at an early student film by the most notable and promising director ever to be ruined by toys. No, not Barry Levinson, George Lucas. If you’ve caught 1971’s (pretty good) THX 1138, then you’d be a bit underwhelmed by 1967’s over-titled short version, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB. For some reason, student films aren’t allowed to be appropriately lit, or to have intelligible dialogue, so you figure that Lucas probably did a reasonable job within a medium clearly designed to stifle aspiring filmmakers. No wonder making toys is so alluring.
In between a lot of darkness and staticky transmissions that indicate that the evil overlords of the subterranean future still haven’t mastered fiber optics, we do get the impression that citizen THX 1138 is running away. It’s not clear whether or not he has a plan. What he does have, notably, is a deep knowledge of the evil overlords’ design flaws. Specifically, when he gets into an elevator and they take the opportunity to shut it down, trapping him, THX simply presses the “override evil overlords” button. It’s right there on the panel! And the elevator moves again! I’m telling you, it’s one dramatic moment like that after another until THX escapes to the barren surface and his wife-mate-thing is told that he was killed in the escape attempt. See? No matter how incompetent the government, you can always count on them to lie and cover up their inadequacies! Thanks, George!
In a parallel, our feature film Harlem Nights was also directed by a director (though, more notably, actor) whose later career was marred by forays into the more-profitable dumb children’s film genre. Before he ever put on a fat suit, Eddie Murphy (this being his only directorial effort) made quite a name as a foul-mouthed, edgy comedian (Raw, Saturday Night Live) with some solid theatrical outings (48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, heck, even The Golden Child and Coming to America had their strengths). Harlem Nights seems to have been a film that got basically horrible reviews. And while the plot wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy, as a character-driven piece (Murphy, Richard Pryor, a bit part for Redd Foxx) it succeeds.
Pryor plays illegal casino owner Sugar Ray, who has adopted street tough Quick (Murphy).
Redd Foxx is a myopic croupier who refuses to wear his glasses and thus screws up the craps calls.
Della Reese is the madam with the heart of gold that runs the casino’s brothel (because if one illegal activity is good, two illegal activities is better!)
Tony Aiello is the dirty cop whose charge (given to him by gangster Bugsy Calhoune, not pictured on the internets) is to take down Sugar Ray’s successful club so his own struggling club can be more profitable.
Jasmine Guy is Bugsy Calhoune’s favorite mistress, shown above just before fatally failing to mix business with pleasure. The pleasure worked. The business? Let’s just say that if you’re hoping for some explosive pillow talk, don’t let your victim discover and unload the gun under your pillow while you’re in the boudoir.
And Arsenio Hall cries his way through his entire brief (but perhaps not brief enough) role as the distraught brother of a dead gangster not in fact killed by Quick. Because most people killed in the movie WERE killed by Quick, but none of their relatives seem to either find out or care, not like Arsenio.
So you know that Bugsy is trying to put Sugar Ray and Quick out of business, but they won’t budge, not for one-sided “business propositions” and not for violence. Finally, they come up with a plan revolving around a prize fight – they put a bunch of money on an obvious loser, implying that the champ is going to take a fall. This goads Bugsy into putting a bunch of his money on the loser. Then, during the fight, they steal all the money! It’s a complicated plan, but it works, and Sugar Ray’s crew heads out of Harlem to set up shop elsewhere with their new stash.
But Harlem Nights succeeds more in moments than in plot. Murphy is positively charismatic throughout the film, and he gets to deliver great lines over and over. Perhaps my favorite comes from the scene where he unexpectedly discovers Arsenio Hall’s dead brother, shot multiple times and throat cut: “I think I’m going to leave, cause you probably want to sit there by yourself, alone, and think about who you pissed off. So, I’ll let you have your space. Excuse me.” I mean, I’m not going to run and add it to my library or anything, but it was fun while it lasted.