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TOP OF THE HEAP (1972).

A black man -- a cop, no less -- reaches his breaking point in this whacked-out vanity project by director, producer, writer, and star Christopher St. John (best known at the time for his fourth-billed role as black militant Ben Buford in SHAFT, and also appeared on Broadway in the 1969 production of Charles Gordone's Pulitzer Prize winning NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY). Looking at the film's fairly generic blaxploitation-era ad campaign, you'd never expect this pic to be so severely, wonderfully brain-damaged. Managing to be both totally sincere and thoroughly gonzo in the same breath, you get the feeling St. John never grasped the unintentional hilarity of his blissfully misguided vision of the troubled male psyche... Kicking off with a muddy brawl between hardhats and hippies that's broken up by the police, we meet our disillusioned, pissed-off protagonist, George Lattimer, a black Washington D.C. cop who's losing his grasp on reality and ready to snap. His mom just died, he's been (once again) passed over for a promotion, he's regularly ridiculed by the Brothers he arrests, his teenage daughter is high on drugs, plus his frustrated wife accuses him of only caring about "putting on that damned uniform and gun and playing the big nigger cop." No question, he's one angry motherfucker, but there's also the weird problem with his uncontrollable Walter Mitty-esque fantasies. You see, in the middle of his work day, Lattimer drifts off and suddenly imagines he's N.A.S.A.'s first black astronaut preparing for a moon mission. But when Lattimer returns to reality, his fuse is shorter than ever -- he gets drunk and high, screams at his wife, screws his longtime mistress (actress/singer/dancer Paula Kelly, credited as "Black Chick"), beats up a neighborhood dope peddler, initiates a barroom brawl, gets chewed out by his Captain (John Alderson), and is even a jerk to his friendly white partner (Leonard Kuras, an original cast member of the Living Theatre's 1963 production of THE BRIG, who also appeared in Martin Scorsese's first feature, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR). Thank god for the goofy, fragmented hallucinations, which rescue gives the viewer a break from his crybaby meltdown. During a pre-space flight press conference he lights up a joint and compares his anxiety to "waiting at the mailbox for your Welfare check"; his history-making moonwalk actually takes place on a soundstage; a hospital stay is enlivened by some bedside comfort from a smokin' blonde nurse (1972 Miss Norway and the March 1975 Playmate of the Month, Ingeborg Sørensen); his astronaut's hometown return has him greeted by a ghost town and his dead mama; and the most insane sequence ha St. John and Kelly going native, running about the woods buck-naked and smashing watermelons to bits. The film cuts between reality and fantasy without much rhyme or reason, mixing surreal imagery with ponderous social statements, and I would've loved to have heard the comments coming from a typical grindhouse crowd during its first run. Though more warped fun than a dozen simple blaxploitation flicks, you can also understand why St. John never made another movie. Complete with a score by J.J. Johnson (ACROSS 110TH STREET, CLEOPATRA JONES), the film co-starred Allen Garfield as a pigish cabbie, Damu King (BLACKJACK) and Ji-Tu Cumbuka (BLACULA) play pot dealers arrested by Lattimer, wrestling champ Tiger Joe Walsh brandishes a knife, and there's even a cameo by longtime Nixon impersonator Richard M. Dixon.

© 2017 by Steven Puchalski.