Proof positive comes in DVD debuts of The Split and The Slams, both from Warner Archive. More popular entries exist on his filmography, but these two are important all the same, for putting a black man front and center, above the title, in pictures meant for mass consumption.
Both also sound alike in title and theme, and feature millions at stake. In 1968’s The Split, based on one of Donald E. Westlake’s ever-popular Parker novels under his Richard Stark nom de plume, Brown is McClain, who pulls a stadium heist with a crew … and that’s the easy part. The hard part is collecting his fair share, especially when half a million of the take is missing.
It’s easy to root for Brown in this scenario, even when his enemies are portrayed by the beloved likes of Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman and Donald Sutherland, who helps make it easy by playing that race card (“He’s a big, black idiot”). Also in that group is Ernest Borgnine, who we are led to believe could go toe-to-toe with Brown with a fight. Yeah! As if!
The final shot is a real keeper, and indicative of Westlake’s cucumber-cool style.
Meanwhile, 1973’s The Slams exudes more a down-and-dirty, blaxploitation feel — at least initially. Produced by Roger Corman’s brother, Gene, and directed by Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused, Unlawful Entry), casts Brown as the appropriately named Hook.
After having ripped off the mafia for $1.5 million, Hook is thrown behind bars. He really wants out, not only to retrieve his loot, but also — and this grants the movie urgency — because the building is slated for demolition. So, in a way, Hook has to plan a double heist of sorts.
Instead of The Split’s slew of antagonists, one emerges in The Slams as a real standout: Ted Cassidy, aka Lurch from TV’s Addams Family, as the racist fellow prisoner, Glover. Here’s an example of how hardcore he is: Glover talks of turning another inmate into “a jigaboo,” and does so by having molten metal poured all over the poor guy’s face. It’s really easy to hate Glover.
Its ending comes shaken with somebody’s body parts in a cement mixer, which is indicative of the Corman school (of which Kaplan is a graduate, courtesy of a “pair” of nurse dramas). And in both movies, being Brown’s girlfriend is hazardous to her health, sometimes fatally. You can’t have it all, Jim. —Rod Lott