Top of the Heap


1h 22m 1972

Brief Synopsis

George Lattimer is proud to be one of the few African American policemen in the Washington DC force. But he is not well-liked by his colleagues or with the people on the street. When he is passed over for a promotion, George is furious and channels his anger into a violent one-man campaign against s

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Release Date
May 1972
Premiere Information
World premiere in Detroit, MI: 24 May 1972; Los Angeles opening: 19 May 1972
Production Company
St. John Unlimited Productions, Inc.; The Fanfare Corporation
Distribution Company
The Fanfare Corporation
Country
United States
Location
Washington, D.C., United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 22m

Synopsis

During a Washington, D.C. riot between construction workers and hippies, policeman George Lattimer is hit in the face with a urine-filled balloon while trying to contain the violence. George, whose mother has recently died, endures racism both from whites, such as the police force superiors who pass him over for promotion, and from blacks, many of whom consider him a sell-out for joining the force. Later at home, George is further frustrated by his wife Viola, who wants him to talk to their thirteen-year-old daughter Valerie about her recent activities with boys. When George dismisses the incident as unimportant, Vi snaps, "All you care about is playing the big nigger cop." Out on the beat, George escapes the prattle of his partner, Bobby Gelman, by imagining himself as a NASA astronaut, one of an elite "Top of the Heap" group scheduled to walk on the moon. Later, George busts two black drug dealers who try to bribe him and call him a "black pig" when he refuses. After hearing their words ring in his ears all night, the next day he shows up for overtime duty guarding War Department employees. Once again George fantasizes that he is walking on the moon, with Bobby as his astronaut partner, planting a flag upside-down. After Bobby litters and George falls into a crater, the scene is revealed to be a movie set. Back in reality, George declares to Bobby that the sergeants' exam is pointless, remaining convinced that he will never be promoted despite Bobby's insistence that he must simply learn to "play the game." They are passing a bar when a man with a knife races out, nearly knocking them over. George gives chase and corners the large man in an alley, managing to subdue him and then holding him at gunpoint. After Bobby arrests the man, however, George realizes that his gun had no bullets, and imagines the man stabbing him to death. For comfort, he visits his girl friend, a nightclub singer, but is disgusted that she is high. Nonetheless, he tries to make love to her, but when she pushes him away, he throws down some cash and stalks out. On George's bus ride home, the driver accuses a black man of underpaying the fare, causing the man to threaten the driver. When the man reaches for something inside his jacket, George pins him down, only to discover it is not a gun the man has but a bottle of wine. The driver, not realizing that George. whose jacket covers his uniform, is a policeman, calls the police, and the white officer who responds roughly stops George as he exits the bus. George explains that he is a policeman, but the suspicious officer holds a cocked gun to his throat until he finds George's badge, then apologizes feebly. At home, George dreams that he is running naked through the jungle with the singer, eating watermelon. The next night, George sees Bobby accept a bribe, and refuses to take a cut of the money. He returns home to find the door open, and after inspecting the house, notices Valerie prone on the bed. Deducing that she is high, he searches her purse and find some pills. As he puts her to bed, she states that he does not care what she does. When he then sees a dealer on the street the next day, George beats him viciously, but the man merely spits racial epithets and laughs. Soon, George is disciplined by his captain, Walsh, who assumes his anger comes from grief over his mother's death. To escape, George imagines himself as the astronaut, telling the press that he is naming the moon module after his friend Richard, a White House janitor. When the press question him about the scientific nature of the mission, however, the astronaut cannot answer and instead lights a marijuana cigarette. George has injured his hand while punching the dealer and now visits a clinic for treatment. The nurse is initially rude to him, but after she sees his gun she arranges for him to see a doctor. While waiting, he fantasizes that he is the astronaut who has been hospitalized after his space module exploded. He first tells his NASA supervisor, Walsh, that there was no indication of machine malfunction but he heard a voice telling him to "get out of the machine," so he bailed out minutes before it exploded. When Walsh leaves, the astronaut seduces a blonde nurse named Beulah May Swenson. After seeing the doctor, George drives home, almost hitting a taxi along the way. The driver jumps out and verbally abuses him, demanding a fight until he sees George's uniform, then apologizes profusely. Later, George visits his old supervisor, Tim Cassidy, in his retirement home. Tim, lonely and bereft, calls the home a prison and delights when George pulls out a bottle of bourbon. Hours later, a drunken Tim gives George a shoebox containing his old gun as a gift. George calls on the singer, and after drinking and dancing, they make love. As he is leaving, she takes a photograph of him but he violently knocks the camera out of her hands. That night, he tells Viola that he will not go to Alabama for his mother's funeral, then imagines Bobby driving him there in a hearse, but despite his status as a famous astronaut, no one is there to greet him. "Don't you realize that I've walked on the moon?" he shouts, then, spotting his mother in the middle of the street, runs to her and weeps in her lap. His mother dances with him, then becomes an African dancer. Back at home, George relives all of the slurs he has suffered over the past few days and announces to Vi that he is quitting the force. Vi asks how he plans to support them, and when George counters that he no longer cares about money, only about not being hated, she retorts that that he is mean and selfish. George walks the streets, envisaging himself in an astronaut uniform, running through city, then in African garb giving a speech about how no man can be a slave or a judge. He goes to the bar where the singer is practicing and asks her to leave with him, inciting the ire of the bar manager. George fights both the manager and the bouncer, then drags the singer to his car and drives erratically, telling her he is going to the moon. When he asks her to run away with him, he is saddened to hear her respond almost exactly as Vi has, attacking him for wanting to take her away without being able to support her. Two policemen spot George speeding and give chase, and after he expertly eludes them, he drops off the singer and drives away. Wandering the National Mall, he hears a child's voice reciting the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Monument, then returns home, chastened and exhausted. Leaving for work the next day, he tells Vi that now he has "got it together," but feels broken and unsure. While patrolling with Bobby, George strolls into an abandoned warehouse, daydreaming that an assassin is aiming at him. As he is shot in his dream, a hidden criminal guns him down in the warehouse, and George collapses, dead.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Release Date
May 1972
Premiere Information
World premiere in Detroit, MI: 24 May 1972; Los Angeles opening: 19 May 1972
Production Company
St. John Unlimited Productions, Inc.; The Fanfare Corporation
Distribution Company
The Fanfare Corporation
Country
United States
Location
Washington, D.C., United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 22m

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Although onscreen credits include a 1972 copyright statement by The Fanfare Corporation, the film was not registered at the time of its release. The same company registered the picture on October 3, 1986 under the number PA-313-646. Christopher St. John's onscreen opening credit reads: "Produced, written, directed by and starring." All other cast and crew credits are in the closing credits. The closing cast credits are presented on a split screen, below a still image of the dead body of "George Lattimer" and above scenes featuring each of the actors listed. The film, throughout which fantasy sequences are intercut with the action, features many jump cuts and jarring edits.
       As noted in several contemporary sources, on July 15, 1971 St. John announced in a Hollywood Reporter advertisement that he had written an original screenplay and was in search of a producer. Fanfare president Joe Solomon offered financial backing, allowing St. John to produce, direct and star in the property. In a June 1972 Box Office article, Solomon stated that he spent more than one million dollars on production and distribution costs.
       Press materials state that St. John wrote the role of "Bobby Gelman" specifically for actor Leonard Kuras, with whom he had worked on stage in the 1960s, while both were studying at the Actors Studio. As noted in contemporary sources, Top of the Heap was shot at the M-G-M Studios and on location in Washington, D.C. Norwegian actress Ingeborg Sorensen had been named Miss Europe of 1971. She made her American film debut in Top of the Heap but appeared in only a few other films and television shows. A modern source adds Randee Lynne Jensen to the cast.
       In May 1972, the Writers Guild of America West (WGA) sued Fanfare, charging that the company had hired Larry Bischof to write the film's screenplay and Joe Greene to write the shooting script but had failed to credit either writer. The WGA also objected to St. John's onscreen credit, stating that his credit as writer should precede that of producer. As noted in a June 1972 Box Office article, the WGA claimed that it was entitled to make the final ruling on disputed credits and sought an injunction against all advertising, distribution and exhibition of Top of the Heap until the issue was resolved. However, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied the injunction, as noted in a May 31, 1972 Hollywood Reporter news item, and a February 1973 Hollywood Reporter article explained that the WGA then failed to pursue the case, resulting in its dismissal. The extent of Bischof's and Greene's contribution to the film, if any, has not been determined. In addition, a May 25, 1972 Daily Variety article reported that Fanfare had filed suit with the National Labor Relations Board, charging unfair labor practices by the local soundman's union. Fanfare stated that the union had refused to bargain in good faith, made unilateral changes in working conditions and imposed unsatisfactory conditions on the production company, under the threat of a strike. The disposition of that suit is unknown.
              Top of the Heap competed in the Berlin Film Festival on June 24, 1972. There, St. John won a nomination for the festival's Golden Bear award. St. John had risen to fame as "Ben Buford" in the 1971 blaxploitation classic Shaft. Upon the release of Top of the Heap, St. John received positive reviews, with many critics citing problems with the picture but praising his efforts. Despite this, his career declined, and since the film's release he has never again directed and has acted in only a few film and television roles.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1972

Film was the subject of a suit brought by the Writers Guild of America West in May 1972. The Guild claimed that Fanfare Corporation had hired Larry Bischof to write the original screenplay and later hired Joe Greene to prepare a sooting script. Neither of these writers' names appeared in the film's credits, in which Christopher St John was listed as the writer.

Released in United States 1972