Monday, December 22, 2014
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Coffy
Most revenge movies leave the actual revenge till the final act. 'Savage Streets' - a Winter of Discontent pick a couple of years ago - is a good example. There's plenty of set-up: the protagonist's life and relationships and what's at stake; the perpetration of the act for which vengeance must be exacted; the planning of said revenge; then, finally, payback. In Jack Hill's 'Coffy', the pre- and immediate post-credit sequence has its eponymous heroine (Pam Grier) blow two scumbags away with a double-barrelled shotgun and snarl a line of dialogue about her sister and drugs. It's an attention-grabbing opening and you might be forgiven for expecting that a flashback detailing the sibling's travails is about to ensue.
But no. Having kicked off his blaxploitation classic in media res, Hill just keeps powering forward, the narrative as relentless and single-minded as Coffy herself. This is a film unencumbered by subplot or digression. The plot is utterly simple: Coffy avenges her sister by tracing a drugs ring back to its source and, uh, eliminating everyone along the way. Even more impressively, she does so - during the early stages of her vengeful rampage, anyway - while holding down a day job as a nurse and keeping her extra-curricular activities secret from activist and wannabe congressmen boyfriend Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw).
Things start to go pear-shaped when the trail leads to King George (Robert DoQui) who’s not an actual member of the British royal family but a fancy-pants pimp with connections to mob boss Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus). First up, King G’s other girls don’t take to Coffy at all, which leads to a Coffy-vs-a-roomful-of-hookers cat fight, the sole aesthetic purpose of which is for all participants to have their blouse or boob-tube ripped off at some stage in the proceedings. It’s a scene so needless, so ludicrously protracted and so utterly shameless in its intent that I’d be hard pressed to mount an argument against anyone who calls it in Jack Hill’s favour as Greatest Exploitation Movie Director Of All Time.
Secondly, Coffy’s attempted hit on Vitroni is thwarted by the intervention of his sleazeball enforcer Omar (Sid Haig). Although Coffy uses the situation to drive a wedge between George and Vitroni, she finds herself in woman-in-peril territory, and it soon becomes apparent that Brunswick isn’t going to be pulling any knight-in-shining-armour shtick any time soon.
'Coffy' melds propulsive storytelling with a total commitment to all things exploitative that doesn’t come at the cost of craftsmanship – Quentin Tarantino famously, and accurately, described Hill as “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking” – and it’d be a hell of an entertaining picture even if it were peopled by cheap-jack actors straight from the lumber yard. But, oh my sweet lord, 'Coffy' boasts some genuinely charismatic acting talent. Grier is magnetic: purposeful, resilient, tough, sexy as all hell, but with a recognizably human centre always underpinning her characterization. Let’s face it, she plays a nurse whose surname is Coffin, which is about the most unsubtle way of announcing one’s anti-heroine as an angel of death, and her modus operandi involves flaunting her ample curves until her antagonists drop their guard (generally about the same time as something else rises). It’s all too easy to imagine this being made a decade later with A. Gregory Hippolyte directing and Shannon Tweed in the lead role and the whole thing being glossy and static and unengaging. Grier gives Coffy a heart and the film soul.
Elsewhere, Sid Haig plays the vicious henchman as only Sid Haig can. How can I describe the Sid Haig experience? Imagine he was in a Bond movie, muscle for hire to Blofeld, and he surprised 007 in the act of infiltrating Ernst Stavro’s secret base. If Sid Haig squared off against Bond, all bets would be off and there’d be a fucking good chance of SPECTRE achieving the world domination plan.
William Elliott puts in a sympathetic performance as Coffy’s former boyfriend Carter, now that rarest of beasts, an honest cop in a tough neighbour. A scene where they almost reconnect, where (it is oh so subtly hinted) Coffy could possibly abandon her actions and let Carter pursue the matter through official channels, is underplayed and the more impactful for it. Predictably, though – for this is an exploitationer after all – the moment is violently interrupted and no such hesitation stills Coffy’s hand for the remainder of the running time.
As you’ve probably gathered, I dig 'Coffy' immensely. A phrase I keep coming back to as the highest accolade I can offer in these Winter of Discontent review is “good unclean fun”. That’s why I seek out exploitation movies. That’s why I wade through untold hours of cinematic depravity. That’s why the Winter of Discontent is my favourite season on this blog. And 'Coffy' is entirely the kind of movie that justifies it.