Thursday, October 01, 2009
FILM REVIEW:TRICK BABY
by Brian Holcomb
I caught this on one of the many Encore Cable channels last night and since it was a Blaxploitation film shot in Philadelphia in the year I was born I thought I would look at it for a few minutes. Well, a few minutes turned into 89 and as the end credits rolled I must say I was quite impressed. This wasn't the standard "pimp and ho show" but rather a smart, character based crime flick about two hustlers just trying to survive in the City of Brotherly Love.
Based on the novel by Iceberg Slim, Trick Baby is the story of veteran black conman "Blue" Howard (Mel Stewart) and his young white protégé "Folks" O'Brien (Kiel Martin). Folks is the "trick baby" of the title, the son of a black hooker and a white John who passes convincingly as white. "Blue" took the young man in at an early age and they have a strong father-son bond that insures a strong trust while scamming the short money day in and day out. Just as "Folks" decides to retire from the risky grind, he seizes an opportunity to lure $90,000 out of a group of racist bigwigs. But this last "sting" becomes increasingly perilous as they have to keep one step ahead of a crooked cop (Dallas Edward Hayes) they shortchanged and the local mobster who has placed a price on their heads for their involvement in the death of his uncle following a con.
"Iceberg Slim" was the pseudonym for Robert Beck. Under that playful name, Beck quickly became one of the most successful African-American authors of the '70s. His acclaimed 1969 debut novel, "Pimp: The Story of My Life", an autobiographical account of his days as a hustler on the streets of Chicago in the 1930s and 40s was first optioned by Universal for a motion picture adaptation but concerns regarding the raw subject matter made them switch to TRICK BABY instead.
This film is not really "blaxsploitation" at all though it shares some of the same concerns and conventions of that genre. The film's focus on the relationship between Folks and Blue is what distinguishes it. The pair make a very conscious use of their skin color and the inherent racism of their "marks" in order to pull off their scams. Like a game of good cop/bad cop, Folks gets the trust of the white community and uses their desire to rip off the black man against them.
The performances are uniformly excellent but the late Kiel Martin really steals the picture as Folks. There's something charismatic about him that makes Folks likable even when he first appears onscreen pretending to be a villainous racist while pulling a con with Blue.
Visually, the film makes great use of its rundown Philly setting, staging scenes in street corners, alleys, and elevated train stations during the grey days of winter. It also features some very inventive editing that places dialogue in counterpoint to the image and an incredibly tense foot chase that works not so much because it's so well staged but rather because the stakes are so high for the characters. This is the key to why the film really works-the personal stakes are raised so high and yet the film keeps reminding the audience that death is imminent. Folks can sense it and keeps trying to convince Blue to forget the big score and just walk away. This is Standard Plotting Procedure for most crime films but here there is an underlying sense of mortality much like Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. A seemingly random attempt to pull a pigeon drop on a "naive" black businessman becomes quite dangerous as the man tells Blue that he's going to kill Folks for the hell of it. They make it out of that jam but the scene leaves a mark on the scenes to follow and make it clear that the ending will not be anything but tragic.
If that's not enough to recommend it, Trick Baby also comes complete with Ted Lange (a.k.a Isaac the Bartender from The Love Boat) as Melvin the Pimp.