TRICK BABY (1972, directed by Larry Yust, 89 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC This Thursday at 8:00pm Exhumed Films and the Cinedelphia Film Festival present one of the gems of the 1970s blaxploitation era, Larry Yust’s 1972 film Trick Baby. Shot extensively on the gritty streets of Philadelphia, Trick Baby doesn’t traffic in the exaggerated “super spade” clichés of the genre but instead functions as an exceptionally thoughtful street-level crime film following a pair of con men as their luck runs out. Based on Iceberg Slim’s second book, the follow-up to his black fiction classic “Pimp: The Story of My Life,” Trick Baby is named after one of those con men, a young man whose European looks give no sign of his mixed African American heritage. He’s known by the name “White Folks” and his partner is an older black man named Blue. Together they make a perfect team; no one suspects that the well-heeled “White Folks” could be in cahoots with the streetwise Blue, and they use their victims’ unspoken prejudice against them. Their opening con involving fake jewels seems like a triumph until they find out their mark had connections with the local mob. “White Folks” and Blue scurry to collect on one more score before they escape the mobsters and crooked cops and head out of Philly for safer pastures.
Director Larry Yust knew a thing or two about literary adaptations before making his feature debut with Trick Baby. He had cut his teeth doing a series of educational films for Encyclopedia Britannica since the mid-sixties, including a widely-seen version of Shirley Jackson’s ghoulish short story, The Lottery. The Britannica film were based on short stories from classic fiction and the strength of Yust’s films is their strong and economical sense of storytelling. Today Yust lives in a beautiful adobe house in Southern California. In his early 80s, he’s still full of memories of shooting his first feature in Philadelphia.
“We looked at other cities but Philly gave us the best deal. It was an easy shoot, the easiest cast I ever worked with, but we did have trouble on the first day of shooting. We were shooting a scene by a skid row hotel and from the balcony a group of Native American iron workers were watching us, drinking. They were making noise but they weren’t being disruptive, they weren’t throwing cans or anything. Anyway, the cop on set says, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” So the cop goes up there and the next thing we know we hear shots being fired. He ended up shooting one of the guys. I think the cameraman caught the man’s body slumping over the balcony. I thought that was it, we’re going to pack up and get out of here. But Mayor Rizzo’s office called the next morning and assured us there were going to be no other problems, so we stayed.”
A reason Trick Baby might not be as well-known as other films from the blaxploitation cycle is that none of the finely-tuned performances come from big stars. Melvin Stewart plays Blue, a fantastically genial presence who would have been known at the time for his recurring role as George Jefferson’s brother Henry on the top-rated sitcom All in the Family. Yust had nothing but praise for the late actor (Stewart died in 2002, leaving behind extensive TV credits): “Mel sneaked things in the role of which I was completely unaware. After Blue finishes his first con he drives his Cadillac back to his fancy apartment. As he gets out of the car, he threw in a little strut, what they call a “pimp walk.” I didn’t notice it at all when we were shooting but when my wife and I saw it with a packed audience in Inglewood (the African American neighborhood in L.A.) the crowd roared! Biggest response of the night! But that was what Mel added.”
In the role of “White Folks” is Kiel Martin, an actor who spent most of his career skirting at the heels of stardom. He displayed his handsome leading man demeanor regularly on episodic TV in the sixties and was in contention to play Joe Buck in the classic Midnight Cowboy. His marriage to Dean Martin’s daughter Claudia must have been ending around the time of the filming and although Yust spoke with warmth for Martin he admitted, “he was snorting and drinking scotch for most of the shoot. Still he was always on time and always knew his lines.” Later Martin did some of his best work as part of the ensemble on Hill Street Blues playing Officer J.D. Larue, a cop always on the hustle who also struggled with alcoholism, just as the actor who played him. Martin would die in 1990 at the age of 46 from lung cancer.
Between “White Folks” and Blue, we see both sides of the city: from a posh dinner party where “White Folks” meets well-heeled businessmen whose greed makes them potential marks as well as the raucous scene at “Mr. Silk’s Third Base” a West Philly nightclub that functions as Blue’s unofficial office. We see a lot of the warm glowing interior of Mr. Silk’s. The club was a real place, a center of African American nightlife at 52nd and Spruce (their slogan was “You have to touch 3rd Base before you go home.”) Owner Gus Lacy was “Mr. Silk,” by all accounts a bon vivant who received his smooth moniker by selling ladies’ undergarments along his postal route. He was also known as “The Mayor of 52nd Street” and before it closed in 1985 politicians, pimps and regular folks rubbed shoulders with stars like Stevie Wonder, Muhammad Ali and James Earl Jones. It’s a blessing that this little corner of the world was captured on film.
The tightly-budgeted Trick Baby did well for Universal and Yust was back with another feature two years later. His follow-up Homebodies followed the group of senior citizens who take bloody revenge on the developers looking to evict them from their decrepit tenement. The film was on its way to play at Cannes but a breakdown with its distributor nearly buried Homebodies release. As Yust’s film work petered out, he morphed his interest into photography, with pieces he calls “elevations” that combine multiple photographs of street fronts and function almost like a long tracking shot. Yust has shown his “elevations” around the world, even exhibiting in the north wing of the Louvre. Has all this success quashed the filmmaking bug? Actually, Yust has a script about the people who flight-trained the 9-11 hijackers that he would love to get made. Like Blue discovers in Trick Baby, it’s hard to give up the hustle.