Top of the Heap

Color, 1972, 90 mins. 15 secs.
Directed by Christopher St. John
Starring Christopher St. John, Paula Kelly, Florence St. Peter, Leonard Kuras, John Alderson
Code Red (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Top of the HeapTop of the HeapAs the opening moments tell us in bold letters, this is a film "produced, written, directed by and starring Christopher St. John." And we first see St. John, the fourth-billed cast member from Shaft, accompanied by driving funk music as George, part of a D.C. cop squad enlisted with beating up and suppressing a bunch of angry protesters at a muddy construction site, complete with a water balloon battle(!). By the time he comes home and sees his antics on the nightly news, he's in no mood to hear about how his 14-year-old daughter Valerie has been "screwing in the garage" from his disgruntled wife (St. Peter). On his next night drive, a grouchy George imagines himself as an astronaut at NASA (complete with awesome huge sideburns) before busting in on a couple of jive-talking crooks busy eating a greasy whole chicken. Their taunt of "black pig" rings in George's ears long afterwards as he has a hard time juggling grief over his mother's recent death and the demands of his guitar-strumming mistress (Kelly, also in Trouble Man and Cool Breeze the same year), who also figures in some of his wild fantasies including one in which they run naked through the woods Top of the Heapand smash up a watermelon. As his family continues to fall apart, he dives further into his socially potent alternate reality as a man trying Top of the Heapto escape this planet entirely.

Imagine a cross between a gritty '70s cop drama and a Fellini freak out and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this undeniably personal and distinctive film, which was the only narrative feature directed by Johnson (who mostly went on to TV work after this). His vocal opposition to the stereotypical blaxploitation approach of the time results in a film that was likely impossible to market for a mainstream crowd (the awkward poster features him in an action screaming pose with the tagline "His rage was the illness of the times!"), and after its initial theatrical release from the Fanfare Corporation (who also handled The Curious Female, The Name of the Game Is Kill!, and Werewolves on Wheels), the film essentially disappeared from view for decades. It's probably a lot more fascinating now than when it opened during a glut of unclassifiable indie films, with its acidic humor and touchy view on race relations (no one comes out clean here) resulting in a constantly surprising viewing experience. It's also fun as a '70s time capsule with lots of views of long-defunct businesses, plus treats like a loud cameo by veteran character actor Allen Garfield (Cry Uncle!), a small role for Brian Cutler who went on to star in the Saturday morning series Isis, and even a climactic glimpse of busy Top of the HeapNixon impersonator Top of the HeapRichard M. Dixon, later seen in the strange porno Presidential Peepers and The Private Files of Edgar J. Hoover. Extra points for the lively score by jazz legend J.J. Johnson, who had previously done Shaft and would go on to Across 110th Street and Cleopatra Jones. It's always a temptation for some viewers to mock a film that puts its bruised heart on its sleeve like this, but its meditations on everything from old age to police morality to the nature of fatherhood make it unlike anything else from its time. Plus it has St. John and Kelly smoking pot while doing a filthy dance on shag carpeting to jungle drum music, so how can you resist that?

Never released on legit U.S. home video apart from a clamshell Unicorn VHS until the DVD by Code Red in 2014, Top of the Heap made it to Blu-ray in 2017 sold exclusively via Diabolik. Since the original negative's been likely left untouched since the early '70s, it looks almost completely immaculate apart from some very minor scuffs that pop up in the last few minutes. Colors are blazing and vivid in that great early '70s way, and overall it has a very fresh and detailed appearance that makes this one of the label's best-looking releases to date. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio is also in very solid condition. The theatrical trailer is included along with bonus ones for Jive Turkey, The Black Gestapo, Brotherhood of Death, The Obsessed One, Mean Johnny Barrows, and Death Journey.

Reviewed on July 2, 2017