Color, 1972, 93 mins. 57 sec.
Directed by Larry Yust
Starring Kiel Martin, Mel Stewart, Dallas Edward Hayes, Beverly Ballard, Vernee Watson, Ted Lange Scorpion Releasing (Blu-Ray) (US RA HD), Universal (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Released during the golden year of blaxploitation in 1972 alongside more famous films like Super Fly, Hammer, and Blacula, this snappy con artist outing has the rare distinction of the time by being based on a familiar novel, in this case a 1967 novel by former pimp "Iceberg Slim" (a.k.a. Robert Beck) written on the heels of his influential debut, Pimp: The Story of My Life. Seen today the film is most interesting as a grittier forerunner to The Sting, which opened almost exactly a year later, and for its potent social message that still cuts quite deep today. The film marked a striking debut for director Larry Yust, who had been turning out acclaimed short films (including a potent version of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery") and would follow this up with the underrated horror black comedy Homebodies.
Born to a black mother and a white father, Philadelphia con man "White Folks" (Hill Street Blues' Martin) has a light complexion that makes him a particularly valuable partner to his older mentor, Blue Howard (All in the Family's Stewart), who raised him from childhood to know how to work the streets. Using the inherent and sometimes oblivious racism of white marks to their advantage, they know how to ingratiate White Folks in a variety of scenarios that can allow them to exploit everything from jewelers to real estate gurus. However, their parade of scores ultimately gets them in trouble when a twist of fate puts them smack between the mob and the cops.
A great buddy character study that's still often overlooked due to its absence of traditional elements like high-octane action scenes, Tricky Baby sails along on the strength of its two excellent lead performances, a sturdy narrative faithful to the source, and a strong sense of atmosphere that really uses the class divide in Philadelphia to its advantage. Nowhere is that more apparent than the unforgettable sequence ping ponging between two dinner parties held by white and black attendees, showing how much race, wealth, and geography can impact every day of a person's life in ways that might not be immediately apparent. The absence of any big stars (though you do get a fun bit for a pre-The Love Boat Ted Lange) means you also get to savor some fine character work from performers who don't necessarily get to occupy the spotlight all that often, yet another reason to seek this one out for something truly different.
Released theatrically around Christmas by Universal, Trick Baby first hit DVD from Universal in a no-frills edition in 2005 as part of a "Soul Showcase" line along with Willie Dynamite and That Man Bolt. That release is easily eclipsed by the 2020 Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing, which features better detail without losing the inherent grain and grit of the original production and feels like watching a freshly struck print. The aspect ratio has been opened up slightly to 1.78:1 from the theatrical 1.85:1 and looks fine throughout, while the DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) has no significant issues. A new interview with Yust, "Street Life" (27m35s), covers the mess of a script he had when he came aboard, his admiration for the source novel, the dangerous moment that almost got them kicked out of Philadelphia, the blocking he wrote out in his copy of the script, the fidelity he ultimately displayed to the book, and the weird writing credit that ended up on the finished product. A radio spot is also included along with a dupey trailer (with a barely camouflaged SWV logo) and bonus trailers forBucktown, King of the Mountain, The Greek Tycoon, Grace of My Heart, andJohnny Cool.