Color, 1974, 85 mins. 57 secs.
Directed by Bill Brame
Starring Paul Harris, Frank deKova, Frances E. Williams, Reginald Farmer, Tawny Tan, Larry Greene
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1 / 1.66:1) (16:9)
Three years after the breakthrough in '70s black cinema with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, moviegoers couldn't get enough of urban thrillers with tough guys shooting it out and bedding women all over America. Though most of the major movie studios jumped into the game, plenty of indies stepped up to bat with just about any reasonably populated city serving as a backdrop for sagas filled with the cheapest and most surefire box office draws: bullets, fake blood, and sex. Case in point: Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes, a particularly grisly look at a criminal racket turf war whose quasi-public domain status has kept it in circulation for years.
In 1956 in a city usually identified in synopses as Harlem but left vague in the actual film, the numbers racket is up for grabs in a big election year between Italian-American mob boss Big Tony (The Mechanic's deKova) and current kingpin Pasha (Harris). Things start off on a heated note at a restaurant meeting of the minds when Pasha learns that Tony's Chicago affiliates have put out a contract on him if he doesn't hand over his numbers business (though he can keep the prostitution) within a month. Tony's right hand man is immediately killed byglamorous gender bender assassin Serene ("Tawny Tan"), who can slash throats with perfectly manicured red fingernails, but that doesn't have much of an effect on the situation. Pasha uses Serene and disciple Sweetman (Farmer) to put on the pressure wherever they can, focusing on anyone with a vulnerable family member as he tries to get his connections in order without tipping off the undercover spies of Big Tony he knows are lurking in his midst.
Though obviously shot for very little money and not the most technically polished entry in the cycle of black crime movies, this one more than makes up for it with sheer insanity. The biggest asset here is the Serene character, whose sparing but shocking violent outbursts never fail to give the film a jolt (including a great, very bloody double murder via high-heeled shoe with a blood-splashed camera gag similar to Riccardo Freda's The Ghost). It's also novel to see Harris play an older, wearier antihero herecompared to the younger, more muscular leads of the time (a la Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree), which gives his feud with the racist deKova a lot more weight and believability. The tone here often veers close to a horror film with loads of stage blood and even a grisly little coda (complete with monster movie font) keeping you uncertain of exactly where this is all heading. The opening also promises "This is a true story," though that seems... unlikely.
A longtime video staple under the reissue title Jive Turkey (on VHS, a throwaway title in one of the those 50-movie Mill Creek packs, and a terrible bootleg DVD from Cheezy Flicks), Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes (also known under another alternate title culled from a racially volatile song heard at the 17-minute point) barely tries to qualify as a period film, mixing modern soul songs and a synth-heavy score with some throwback cars and leather jackets to make it feel a little bit different from your standard blaxploitation film. It's a fairly standard crime story for the most part, though the jolting slo-mo massacre scene over the opening credits is a much more aggressive and stylish curtain raiser than you usually saw around this time. The 2017 Blu-ray edition (which still has Jive Turkey as the title card) is taken from a pretty nice 35mm print, bearing some scratches and debris but generally in good shape apart from colors that have started to turn to the pink side. The 1.78:1 framing is a relief after the open matte version we've been stuck with, which exposed some bobbing boom mics now and then. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio sounds okay but is limited by the nature of the source print, which has some crackling and signs of deterioration very evident. Extras include the theatrical trailers (under both of its most familiar titles) and bonus ones for Top of the Heap, Brotherhood of Death, Mean Johnny Barrows, Death Journey, and The Black Gestapo.
Reviewed on June 4, 2017.