Robin’s Underrated Crap: The Guy from Harlem (1977)

If a poster like this doesn’t speak volumes about the quality of a movie, I don’t know what will! I mean, nothing makes a hero look more badass than advertising his cleanliness! Nearly one year ago this week, I wrote my very first “Robin’s Underrated Crap” column and I think a new edition is long overdue. There are some things that people recommend you do at least once every six months, such as visiting the dentist, and I think writing about an indescribably bad movie falls into that category as well. And ironically, the film I’m writing about this week is about as enjoyable as a trip to the dentist. This is only the third time I’ve written a “Robin’s Underrated Crap” column, and as a refresher, I use them to examine jaw-droppingly bad movies that somehow manage to transcend the concept of awfulness. These films may not be as notorious as, say, The Room or Troll 2, but they really should be. Like I’ve said before, bad movies can be underrated too.

For this particular column, I’ve selected an ultra-low budget (to put it mildly!) 1977 blaxploitation picture called The Guy from Harlem. Last week, I wrote a “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column on the comedy, Black Dynamite, which did a pitch-perfect job of re-creating and spoofing the schlocky, low-rent blaxploitation films of the 1970s. They even went so far as to feature intentional continuity errors and deliberately shoddy filmmaking in order to truly recapture the spirit of the genre. The Guy from Harlem is the perfect embodiment of the type of movie that Black Dynamite was spoofing, except that its shoddy filmmaking is definitely not intentional. Quite simply, The Guy from Harlem was made by people who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing! While the other two films I’ve covered in “Robin’s Underrated Crap”, The Lonely Lady and Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, are so hilariously bad that they remain consistently entertaining from beginning to end, The Guy from Harlem is more of a tough slog to get through. The film is undeniably hilarious, but it also suffers from a bad case of stretches-of-nothing-happening-itis and becomes quite boring at times. However, it’s amazing how well The Guy from Harlem preys on your masochistic tendencies because even when it grows dull, the film is still so fascinating in its awfulness that you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

Seven seconds into the preceding trailer, you may have noticed that the roar of a plane flying overhead was drowning out the sound in the featured scene. That pretty much sums up the professionalism of The Guy from Harlem in a nutshell. Alarm bells instantly start going off in your head the moment the film’s title pops up onscreen. One of the most basic rules a filmmaker should know is that if you’re planning to use a white font for your titles, try not to display it against a bright background! You’re probably better off not making the viewer believe that your film’s title is Y from Har.

For starters, I should probably clarify that The Guy from Harlem takes place in Miami, not Harlem. I guess it’s technically not false advertising, however, since the main character is from Harlem. We know this because he actually refers to himself as “the guy from Harlem” in the third person at numerous points throughout the film! The movie even has its town title song, a typically funky 1970s soul tune with a singer spouting off lyrics like: “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!”. Admittedly, this tune is kind of catchy at first, but since this film wasn’t exactly allotted a high music budget, no points for guessing that you’ll become quite sick of hearing this song LONG before the film is over!

Anyway, the actual guy from Harlem in this story is a black private investigator named Al Connors (Loye Hawkins), and the filmmakers immediately establish that they will spare us no details about Al’s typical workday. After the opening titles conclude, Al is shown entering his office, and then the movie treats us to a long unbroken camera shot of Al walking over to his chair… taking off his jacket… putting his jacket on his chair… grabbing a file from his filing cabinet… sitting down in his chair… putting the file on his desk and looking through it… picking up the phone… and talking on the phone to someone we never see about something we know nothing about. Did I mention that all of this exciting action is shot from about ten feet away? Rene Martinez Jr., the director of The Guy from Harlem, constantly makes the worst mistake an amateur filmmaker can make by never cutting away when he should and showing us every single little mundane detail about every single scene. Even though the following clip has been heavily edited, it perfectly captures your typical scene in The Guy from Harlem.

However, I can almost understand why so many of the scenes in this film are shot this way since The Guy from Harlem requires a lot of padding to stretch itself out to 86 minutes. The narrative is essentially the same storyline repeated two times in a row, and this almost feels like two episodes of a TV series which have been edited together to make a feature-length movie. The first half of the film involves Al Connors being hired to protect the wife of an African diplomat from a kidnapping plot. Al defeats the bad guys, rescues the woman and has sex with her. We never meet the actual African diplomat, and no one seems bothered by the fact that Al just screwed his wife. The second half of the film involves Al being hired by a gangster to rescue his kidnapped daughter, who is being held for ransom by a criminal mastermind known as “Big Daddy”. Once again, Al defeats the bad guys, rescues the woman and has sex with her. Yes, the second half is almost an exact carbon copy of the first half of the film, except that it concludes with a fight scene between Al and the villainous Big Daddy, whose crushing defeat probably made him realize he was better off kidnapping Ralph Wiggum.

“Look, Big Daddy, it’s clean mean fighting machine daddy!”

While watching an obscenely bad movie on their show, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew once uttered the line: “This is a case where parents should have crushed a child’s dreams of becoming a filmmaker”. Those words would definitely apply to the people who made The Guy from Harlem. Believe it or not, Rene Martinez Jr. does have two other directorial credits to his name, as he also made a 1973 film called Road of Death and somehow got the funding to make another film after this one. Of course, I probably shouldn’t expect too much from a film called The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger! The filmmakers obviously had no money to work with, and I give them credit for even completing the film and getting it released, but unfortunately, they show themselves to be completely incompetent at the simple act of staging, pacing and editing scene. The movie has a very limited amount of locations, but I do have one piece of good news for you: if you absolutely love garishly colourful rooms with a 1970s decor, you’ll probably find The Guy from Harlem to be greatest movie ever made. Believe me, the film spends a LOT of time in those garishly colourful rooms! And therein lies the problem: the filmmakers seemed to think that the best way to work around their budgetary limitations was to shoot footage of people entering rooms, exiting rooms, sitting down in rooms, doing mundane tasks in rooms, and displaying nonexistent acting skills while exchanging godawful dialogue in rooms. And if they needed more padding, they could intercut their room scenes with scenes of people driving around. If there was one thing this film desperately needed, it was footage of Al Connors turning corners and stopping at stop signs!

So, yes, like I said earlier, portions of The Guy from Harlem ARE extremely boring, yet even when there are long stretches of absolutely nothing happening, you somehow can’t stop watching. Even though it provides a lot of boredom, the film still does provide a LOT of entertainment value. This is one of those movies where you honestly believe that the director did not have the money to shoot more than one take of any of the scenes. You can get sloshed pretty fast if you decide to start a “Guy from Harlem Drinking Game” and take a drink every time a flubbed line or missed cue makes it into the finished film. The acting from the unknown cast is absolutely atrocious, but I’m not sure I can entirely blame them. Even though the movie has a credited screenwriter (Gardenia Martinez… hmmmm, you think they might be related to the director?), I’m not entirely convinced this film even went into production with a finished script. Most of the dialogue sounds like it was improvised or ad-libbed on the spot, and unfortunately, were not exactly dealing with the cast of Whose Line Is it Anyway? here. You can spot so many awkward moments where the actors are clearly making things up as they go along and struggling to figure out what line of dialogue they’re going to say next. However, the ineptitude of the acting pales in comparison to the utter ineptitude of the filmmaking. The finished film is just filled with shaky camera work, jump cuts, continuity errors, poor sound recording, and background noise drowning out the dialogue. And quite frankly, The Guy from Harlem features what may be the absolute worst fight scene in the history of cinema!

When a filmmaker is working with a small budget, it should be common sense that they work within their limitations and that attempting to stage action sequences is NOT the best idea! There was obviously no fight choreographer on hand for The Guy from Harlem, so why they attempted to stage about half a dozen fight scenes is beyond me. Like the dialogue scenes, it looks like the fights were all improvised on the spot and done in one take and they all look absolutely TERRIBLE! Since this production didn’t even seem to have the money to dub in any sound effects, you can spot many instances of the actors selling punches that don’t even come close to connecting. The most notorious bad movie of recent years is probably James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror, which was so incompetent in every aspect that some people were convinced that the film was all just an elaborate hoax. Well, since there was no Internet in 1977 and no need to pull a hoax on people, The Guy from Harlem proves that, yes, some filmmakers CAN be that incompetent!

In retrospect, deciding to make a blaxploitation flick in 1977 shows how out of touch the filmmakers really were since the genre’s popularity had long since waned by that point. The Guy from Harlem didn’t leave any impression at all on its original release and faded off into obscurity and the public domain, but it can now be found in Mill Creek Entertainment’s Drive-In Movie Classics 50-Pack. Now, even if you are a “bad movie” buff, you might want to proceed with caution before watching The Guy from Harlem since it does move at a snail’s pace and it might take you several viewings to get through the whole thing. However, the movie is so badly made and jaw-droppingly inept in ways which few other films can match, that it definitely provides a lot of laughs and must be seen to be believed. Overall, I’d say it definitely qualifies as an underrated piece of crap and it proves that no matter how untalented they may be, ANYBODY can get a film produced if they really want to.

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