Coffy (1973)

Director: Jack Hill

There are some actors who you associate so much with a particular role that it becomes hard to see them play another one. Allan Arbus didn’t have this problem in 1973; still fairly new to the acting game, Coffy was actually released before his first appearance on M*A*S*H went to air. Unfortunately, with all these decades of hindsight, I could only look at the film and think “holy shit, that’s Sidney Freedman as a sexually perverted gangster with a kind of wobbly Italian accent”… it’s a little bit headfucking. (Talking of accents, I’m not sure what was up with Sid Haig’s either…) Anyway, he wasn’t the drawcard in Coffy; that was Pam Grier, whose career at American International actually began behind a desk before she became one of their bigger stars. in Coffy she plays the titular nurse, whose family (including a pre-teen sister) have been waylaid by drugs, which inspires her to go vigilante against drug pushers; however, it’s when a former flame on the police force is viciously attacked by thugs for not going on the take like his fellows on the force that she really blossoms. Before that she’s kind of nervy about her task; after it she’s a goddamn vengeance machine, with a lot more than just the pushers to take down (parenthetically, this is the second film I’ve watched just today that’s ended with a woman doing grievous injury to a man’s crotch. As coincidences go, that’s weird and disturbing). As has been noted by others, making the female lead a gun-toting vigilante crime buster was a marked reversal of the blaxploitation norm—not that it was awfully common outside that cinematic sphere, of course—and Grier contributes a great deal to the film’s success. It’s the sort of film that needs someone really good in the lead role to anchor proceedings—some of which are actually remarkably nasty, I can understand why it was rated R here in the 70s—and if there were someone of lesser style or charisma playing Coffy, the film would likely have been a lot less watchable than it is.

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