I know what you’re wondering already : can the movie possibly be as low-rent as that poster?
The answer is : and then some.
Affectionately (I guess) referred to as “The ‘Plan 9’ of blaxploitation” by fans of the genre, Rene Martinez Jr.’s 1977 offering “The Guy From Harlem” is actually, on a purely technical level, even worse than Ed Wood’s unintentional masterpiece — or any of Wood’s films, for that matter. It rivals low-grade 70s porn in terms of sheer artistic inability and leaves a person feeling somehow unclean for having even seen it, even though there’s little by way of nudity or even convincing violence on display. Of the 18 comments posted about the film on IMDB, a good majority of them refer to it as the worst film ever made. And while in many cases that’s simply hyperbole, or even a tag applied by fans of the film in order to gain it a cult following, in this case it might actually be the truth. I’ve seen plenty of cheaply made haphazard films, but few can rival “The Guy From Harlem” for overall incompetence. Many a low-rent production has been referred to as “looking and feeling more like a student film,” but again, in this case it’s absolutely true —it looks and feels like a student film. Like a 6th grade student film!
The movie throws us right into the middle of the “action” — a foul-mouthed young black woman with a bad attitude is tied to a chair in what looks to be some kind of cabin. Her captor informs her that she’ll soon be joined by another “of her kind,” in fact, her soon-to-be-arriving guest is from Africa. You can safely put this entire situation out of your mind, though, as we won’t be getting back to our feisty damsel in distress until about halfway through the movie. Now it’s time to meet The Man himself!
As the credits roll — literally — over a scene of an enormously-fro’d dude driving his car, we hear the the film’s constipated-sounding theme tune bumping away : “The guy from Harlem! That cat’s a baaaad dude! Ugh! Watch the moves! The guy from Harlem! Ugh! He’s mean, he’s clean, he’s a fighting machine!”
Good to know he’s clean, huh? We always look for that in a hero.
The first thing you’ll notice, apart from the titular guy from Harlem’s hair, is that we’re not actually in Harlem at all. We’re in Miami, and the whole film in fact takes place in sunny south Florida. That doesn’t mean our hero ain’t from Harlem, though — he never misses a chance to tell anyone and everyone where he hails from (“Tell your boss that nobody messes with the guy from Harlem!” being a favorite line). Remember, the title of the movie is “The Guy FROM Harlem,” not “The Guy IN Harlem.”
So, anyway, our man of the hour is Al Connors, (supposedly) bad-ass private eye who doesn’t take no shit from anyone, doesn’t play games, and scores with every piece of tail that crosses his path. In the hands of a capable actor, Connors could, potentially, be a serviceable, if still entirely unoriginal and uninvolving, two-dimensional cardboard cut-out John Shaft-wannabe.
In the hands of star Loye Hawkins, however, he approaches the level of unintentional caricature, almost a walking parody of the excesses of the entire blaxploitation genre. Think of the comical OTT nature of Rudy Ray Moore’s “Dolemite” character — only the makers of “The Guy From Harlem” WEREN’T trying to be funny. The end result’s certainly the same, though. In fact, “Dolemite” looks like a big-budget blockbuster next to this thing.
Hawkins can’t act. Period. He looks the part enough, I suppose, but he’s got all the screen presence of wet lumber, and emotes about as well. You’d honestly think he was reading directly from cue cards — if it weren’t so painfully obvious that most of the “dialogue” in this movie was just ad-libbed on the spot. Jumbled lines, repeated information from a few seconds earlier, garbled delivery and barely-intelligible exchanges are mainstays of “The Guy From Harlem” — apparently director Martinez either had very little actual film at his disposal and couldn’t spare any to actually shoot more than one take of anything, or else the only words in his vocabulary were “okay, cut — and print.” Quite literally everything on display here NEEDS to have been done in one take — otherwise there’s no, and I mean NO, explaining it.
Al’s got himself a perfectly serviceable little office staffed by a perfectly serviceable-in-the-looks-department secretary named Sue (Wanda Starr), who of course has the hots for him even though he’s prone to tell her things like “how many times do I have to tell you — this phone is for business purposes only!” when she’s talking to her mother. Some dudes just know how to charm without even trying, I guess.
One morning Al is visited by an old buddy of his from Harlem who just so happens to work for the CIA. We’re told that a visiting African dignitary is coming to town to meet with the Secretary of State and that his wife may be the target of a kidnapping plot, so they need someone they can trust to look after her. They’d normally task one of their own men from inside “The Company” with the job, but they’re worried that there might be a mole, so they’re hiring outside talent to watch her back. Al’s hesitant to take on the gig, but when his friend tells her that she’s cute, he’s in. He’d better be careful, though — as his CIA budy keeps telling him, if he tries to make time with this lady, there could be INTERNATIONAL REPERCUSSIONS! Still, despite Al’s apparently well-established reputation as a hound dog, they figure he’s the man for the job.
Next we head to one of exactly five, by my count, different locations used for the film (the others being Al’s office, an apartment, the “cabin” mentioned earlier, and a piece of outdoor acreage that functions as all the film’s “various” outdoor locales — my best guess is that they’re all either in or right outside of the same building), a hotel suite (where they’ve checked in under the impenetrably clever aliases of Mr. and Mrs. Connors), and Al is showing Princess Ashanti (Patricia Fulton, who’s variously referred to as a Princess, a Queen, or even simply “the wife of a chief of state” — if her exact title didn’t matter to Martinez and co. it sure as hell shouldn’t matter to us) her spacious new temporary quarters.
The Princess (or Queen, or whatever) has a bad back and needs a massage. Al would normally volunteer his own services, of course, but given those INTERNATIONAL REPERCUSSIONS we’re constantly reminded of, he calls the hotel’s masseuse instead. There are some shady characters hanging out in the courtyard, though, so Al decides to keep an eye on the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) while she gets her rub-down for SECURITY PURPOSES, the next phrase we’ll be hearing repeated about sixty times. Damn good thing, too — the masseuse was about to stick a needle into the Princess (or Queen, or whatever).
Dangers are aplenty at this apparently five-star hotel, though, because next up the room service waitress turns out to be, well, not a waitress —
How could Al see through this impervious disguise? As he tells Princess (or Queen, or whatever) Ashanti : “I ordered a New York strip steak, and I can smell a New York strip steak from a mile away.” Sure enough, under the silver tray, there ain’t no steak, but a gun! And here I just thought maybe he could smell dick a mile away. Still, besides this feat of chameleon-like daring, this scene also treats us to the first of several inanely-staged fight sequences that will become a staple of the film. You’ve simply never seen “action” choreography staged as unconvincingly as it is in this movie. Punches that obviously don’t even connect send attackers sprawling to the ground, people leap a good few seconds to soon, Al barely taps an assailant and they go reeling — they’re an absolute blast to watch, but there’s no point in mentioning their ineptitude time and time again, so whenever I talk about the guy from Harlem taking on an attacker or two (or more) in the future, just assume it’s an unintentional display of absolute buffoneery. You’ll swear that the fight scenes in this flick were choreographed by Dick Van Dyke or John Ritter.
Are you ready for another change of scenery? I know, I know — things are moving along at a pretty breakneck speed at this point, but try to stay with me.
Deciding that things are a bit too hot at the hotel, Al take Princess (or Queen, or whatever) Ashanti to a safer place for SECURITY PURPOSES — namely the apartment of a white chick he apparently makes time with when he can fit her into his busy schedule. She’s a pretty good sport about the whole thing and heads out to check into a hotel that Al has fronted her the cash for — I just hope that, for SECURITY PURPOSES, she doesn’t pick the same hotel that the guy from Harlem and the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) just escaped from.
Exhausted from a long day of running (well, okay, she never really runs—) for her life, our Princess (or Queen, or whatever) needs a shower, so we get a little bit of toplessness, then we see her putting on one of the white chick’s nightgowns, then it’s down to business as Al scores some (apparently, depending on who’s talking about her) royal pussy. And if you thought the fight scenes were bad, you ain’t seen nothing. “The Guy From Harlem” may have the ambiance and technical proficiency of a shot-on-super-8 porn loop, but the love scenes in this flick are as wooden, stilted, pedestrian, and downright nervous-about-themselves-looking as anything every committed to film. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief when you see this one, and all the others in the film, end when Al strips off the woman’s nightgown, climbs on top of her for an obviously fake kiss, and then we jump to the next day. As with the fight scenes — and the dialogue scenes —, in the “love” scenes Martinez and DP Rafael Remy — who I’m surprised even a took a credit for his “work” here — show an absolute steadfastness in their refusal to do anything other than shoot things straight ahead from about a medium length. It’s cinematographical paralysis of the highest order, and creates a bizarre occult visual rhythm to the proceedings so incessantly lethargic that on those few occasions when they do actually move in for close-ups or show things from any angle other than dead-center ahead, you feel as if some sort of spell has been broken and the world as we know it turned on its axis.
And that’s it for our Princess (or Queen, or whatever). Al’s apparently safely delivered her back to her just-got-cheated-on husband, and he’s back at the office, mission accomplished.
There’s just one problem — we’re only 45 minutes into the film!
Never fear, though, my friends — the Martinezes (director Rene and screenwriter Gardenia, who’d damn well better be related, otherwise there’s no excuse for this “script” making it in front of a camera) have a plan. Remember that PMSing lady I told you about who was tied to a chair in some remote “cabin” at the start of the film? You can remember her again. But forget anything her captors were saying about bringing some African chick to join her (they apparently have, seeing as how it’s never mentioned again), because apparently that’s the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) that they were talking about and Al just took care of all that.
Into Al’s office steps (again, supposedly) bad- ass gangster Harry DeBauld, portrayed with scene-stealing scenery-chewing amateurish overenthusiasm by “Wildman” Steve Gallon, who would go on to star in Martinez’s only other directorial effort, the amazingly politically incorrectly-titled “The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger” (later renamed “Super Soul Brother,” for obvious reasons, upon its video release during the early-80s VHS boom).Of all the reasons to love this film (what, you’re saying I haven’t given you any?), Gallon’s deliriously gleeful performance has to top the list. Sure, he doesn’t actually know his lines — assuming any were ever written down — any more than anyone else in this celluloid fiasco does, but he’s so brimming-over-with-joy at his own often-incoherence that it just plain doesn’t matter. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
His son Larry (Laster Wilson) and the other henchmen who have accompanied him to the office are as dull and listless as Hawkins or any of the other “actors” in this thing, but Gallon’s is one of two performances in the film (remember the foul-mouthed gal? more on her in a second) that are every bit as unprofessional as the others, but much more eagerly so, if that makes any sense.
Harry’s got a problem. He runs a successful gambling operation, but he’s been trying to take over the local narcotics trade, as well — and along the way he’s into trouble from a guy named Big Daddy, with whom he’s warring over a piece of territory worth, I kid you not, “hundreds of millions of dollars a day.” Wrap your head around that concept! But I digress — as part of his daring plan to get Harry to back the fuck off from his turf, Big Daddy has gone and kidnapped the usually-jubilant gangster’s only daughter, Wanda (Cathy Davis), and is holding her for heavy ransom — a quarter-million dollars’ cash and a whole shitload of coke. Harry heard about what Al did for “that African Queen” (or Princess, or whatever), and figures he’s the man to handle the exchange.
Initially pissed about Harry even knowing about the whole Queen (or Princess, or whatever) thing because “that’s supposed to be top secret,” Al warms up to the idea of working for the crimelord when he checks out a picture of his daughter and decides she’s pretty damn hot. That’s the guy from Harlem for you.
So, he takes the case — Harry forks over an obviously empty envelope (“it’s all there — count it!”), a Ziplock freezer bag full of flour, and Al’s back in action. There’s just one problem — who is this Big Daddy? What does he look like? I’ll let Harry take it from here for a minute —
“That’s the problem. Nobody’s seen him. All I know about him is this — he’s big, six feet tall, and muscles ! You wanna talk about muscles! Curly blond hair, and he always wears these bands around his muscles!”
So — nobody’s seen him, but everybody knows what he looks like. Only in “The Guy From Harlem.”
Al’s got it all figured out, of course, only he doesn’t let Harry in on the details of his cunning plan — he heads down to the local Gold’s Gym-type place, gets the drop on one on Big Daddy’s lughead henchmen who’s probably twice his size, find out Wanda’s (Ms. bad attitude, in case you hadn’t figured that out already) location, busts her out , a few more inept fight scenes of the sort I mentioned earlier ensue, and suddenly the guy from Harlem is sitting on top of the world with a quarter million – bucks’ “cash,” a half-million – bucks’ woth of “drugs,” and a beautiful, if feisty, female companion who’s grateful as hell for his “daring” rescue of her.
Wanda doesn’t want to go home just yet because she’s pissed at her dad for putting her life in danger by getting mixed up in the drug business, so Al takes her back to that white chick’s apartment from before. She’s not nearly so pleasant to deal with this time, but she gets the hell out of there again, with cash fronts her for a hotel again, and after than Wanda takes a shower, puts on the same fucking nightgown the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) was wearing earlier, and we get essentially the exact same “love” scene we got before. Yes, folks, the only thing differentiating this sequence from the one that took place about 40 minutes earlier is the actress, that’s it. And they both have the same identically-huge afros, and remarkably similar bodies, so who knows if our guy Al really even notices the difference when the lights are out.
Then it’s back to gangster daddy for the exchange at Al’s office the next day, whereupon he informs them that gangster daddy can keep the money, but he’s taking the drugs to the cops, a fact that only pisses off gangster daddy for a second before he’s back to his usual disturbingly jovial self.
There’s still the matter of Big Daddy to be dealt with, though. He’s pretty pissed at the guy from Harlem for messing up his whole life in one day flat, so they arrange for a “meeting” (read: fistfight) to settle the score, and we get one more of those straight-outta-the-Batman-TV-show-but-without-the-word-balloons “fight” scenes, which Al of course wins, and then we get a final surprise — Al, who has shown no signs of being anything other than the biggest skirt-chaser on the planet, has apparently fallen for Wanda during the course of their (and I use this term loosely, of course ) ordeal, and, as one of her daddy’s henchmen says to her brother, “it looks like you’re gonna need a new suit!”
And so everyone, apparently, lives happily ever after.
Improbable — maybe even impossible — as it is to believe, “The Guy From Harlem” is available on DVD. It’s part of the ultra-cheapie “Drive-In Movie Classics” 50-film, 12-DVD box set from Mill Creek, masters of the public domain film. The print looks like shit and jumps at several points, the sound is muffled, it’s quite obviously a direct-from-VHS transfer — in other words, it’s absolutely perfect. You can usually score this box for about eight or ten bucks — I;ve even heard of it going for five at Wal-Mart — and is totally worth it for “The Guy From Harlem” alone. You can watch this flick again and again and not get bored in your quest for still more things to find absurd about it.
Beyond bad, beyond cheap, beyond shoddy, beyond comprehension — “The Guy From Harlem” is absolutely without merit on any level whatsoever, and accordingly gets my highest possible recommendation. See it now!