Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
The terrifically hairy Kieran Fisher and I have been doing this weekly column for three months now, and while we don’t share notes before making our picks a common theme has become clear all the same. We’re both digging into Prime’s immense movie selection for uncommon titles, and what we’re finding, week after week, are low budget genre flicks usually filled with violence and other varieties of uncouth behavior. We share a taste for the mean, bloody, and weird apparently, and the trend is continuing this week with my latest pick — 1972’s Top of the Heap.
What’s it about?
Officer George Lattimer (Christopher St. John) is a black cop in an unforgiving city, and he is one angry man. We first meet him responding to a riotous brawl where he receives a piss-filled balloon to the face, but that’s not even the half of why he’s so furious and short-tempered. It seems he’s been passed over for a promotion, and he believes the reason is 100% due to his being black. It’s a final straw, and combined with the recent death of his mother and the realization that the America he loves doesn’t love him back sends him off the deep end. What follows is a combination of his days and nights spent exploding on those around him — his wife, his girlfriend, his sexually-active fourteen year-old daughter, his otherwise happy partner — meshed with a series of day dreams and fantasies where he visits his dead mother or practices a moon landing as one of NASA’s finest.
It soon becomes clear that he’s a man in crisis, and with no one willing or able to throw him a life line he instead crumbles beneath the weight of traumas both personal and universal. The world he was promised — the American Dream itself — is AWOL, and it’s left George standing helpless with his empty gun in one hand and his dick in the other.
What makes it sublime?
Top of the Heap is an oddly memorable experience that pairs the racially-fueled aggression of something like The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973) with the basic plot of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), but the bulk of it is all Christopher St. John. “Produced, written, directed by, and starring” is how his own opening credit reads, and it’s clear that this is a singular vision for both better and worse. He has something to say, and he says it in ways both messy and aggressive.
St. John’s film played at the 22nd Berlin International Film Festival where it was nominated for the fest’s top prize, the Golden Bear. It didn’t win — that honor went to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales — but the nomination is no small potatoes. Sadly, St. John’s first feature as director was also his last (aside from a documentary he made with his son in 2016), and while it’s unintentional, the through-line from a character denied a promotion due to his race to a black filmmaker denied a second chance behind the camera because of one commercial failure feels like the expected coda to the film itself. The year before saw him star in one of the most well-known blaxploitation films, Shaft (1971), but his attempt at parlaying that into something more serious and pointed instead merely fizzled out with a shoddy release by a distributor that lacked faith in (or understanding of) the final product.
There is a traditional plot nestled into the madness, and St. John delivers an intensely fractured performance as a man in free fall. His simmering reactions to black criminals calling him out as a traitor and white cops treating him like just another black criminal are rage incarnate. Florence St. Peter‘s performance as his long-suffering wife transcends the “neglected wife” cliche across her brief scenes with a rising resilience, and Leonard Kuras does the same as Lattimer’s competent and patient police partner. Both of them love the man, but neither can save him from himself.
No 70s tale of corrupt cops and unruly behaviors would be complete without fight scenes, insubordination, T&A, rough language, car chases, and other R-rated shenanigans, and Top of the Heap delivers on those fronts well enough. What makes it memorable, though, and lifts it apart from the rest of the pack, are the strange and surreal additions that St. John adds into the mix. Rapid-fire flashbacks are spliced in to illustrate the grievances raging within Lattimer, and his day dreams see him combating recent American history through his own lens.
He imagines himself as an astronaut walking on the moon only to reveal it’s being filmed on a stage, he pictures an Adam & Eve-like set-piece where they attack and devour a watermelon with vicious glee, he puts himself into a JFK-like assassination scenario as a possible victim, and more. And through it all, the flag of the United States reveals Lattimer’s — and the film’s — feelings of betrayal as it’s displayed upside down, torn apart, paired with the symbol for poison, and minimized to an ass-patch on a pair of jeans. Every step upward he takes is nothing but an illusion in a world that refuses to value him for who he truly is.
Officer George Lattimer is a black cop in an unforgiving country, and he is one angry man.
And in conclusion…
As mentioned, Top of the Heap is an angry movie that’s as far from subtle as Christopher St. John is from being a household name. It makes for an erratic and wildly unpredictable movie that chooses quite early to ignore the usual rules and forge its own ferocious path forward instead. The results are messy and raw but undeniably powerful all the same.