It’s amazing that more films haven’t been made from the novels of Iceberg Slim. Starting with Pimp: The Story Of My Life, Slim (alias Robert Beck) wrote a string of fast-selling paperback books that chronicled crime and street life from a uniquely African-American perspective. He’d pimped and hustled before turning to writing and that gave him the ability to recreate that milieu from the inside out. Most of what Beck wrote makes conventional blaxploitation fare look like Pollyanna. Sadly, the only one thus far to make it to silver screen is Trick Baby. Though it is often lumped in with the blaxploitation films of the era, this movie has more to offer.
Trick Baby focuses on the relationship between Blue (Mel Harris) and White Folks (Kiel Martin), a pair of hustlers plying their trade in the big city. Blue is an aging pro who acts as tutor/father figure to Folks, a younger con artist of mixed parentage who can “pass for white.” Folk’s white appearance allows them to pull off cons beyond the inner city and the two have honed their act to a science as they continue to look for the big score.
Unfortunately, things become complicated when they are on the verge of scamming some white businessmen to the tune of $130,000. An old man they recently scammed dies of a stress-induced heart attack, causing his angry mafioso nephew Nino Parelli (Tony Mazzadra) to swear vengeance. This opens up an opportunity for corrupt cop Dot Harris (Dallas Edward Hayes) to blackmail the duo and he demands a payoff to keep them out of Parelli’s clutches. Blue and Folks struggle to close their big score but the risks of the con game rear the ugly heads, making things very difficult for this duo.
It’s a compelling storyline and one that could have been softened down into conventional Hollywood fare but director/co-writer Larry Yust never takes the easy road. Trick Baby delivers the intricacies of con game in several fun sequences that prefigure The Sting but it also explores its dangers. Blue and Folks have to constantly watch out for divisive forces both external (Nino, Dot) and internal, like Blue’s faithless younger girlfriend and Folks’ carefully hidden inner anguish over his inability to belong to either white or black society. By the end, the viewer realizes that the con lifestyle dooms a person to a life of surface appearances and the constant threat of danger.
Trick Baby communicates these psychological complexities via excellent performances from Harris and Martin: Harris is capable of switching his con persona on and off yet shows a touching vulnerability in his moments with his young pupil while Martin creates a breezy, devil-may-care persona that he occasionally pulls away to reveal the emotional confusion lurking underneath. There is also solid work from Hayes as the dim but ambitious cop, who is given to fits of anger because he knows he is as limited in life options as the hustlers he’s chasing. Equally worthy of note is Beverly Ballard’s brief but gutsy turn as Susan, a white “mark” who falls into a relationship with Folks and gets stung: the scene where she comes undone after realizing she’s been toyed with is heartbreaking.
Finally, Trick Baby benefits from crisp, pace-conscious direction by Larry Yust, who is better known to cult flick fans for helming the odd black comedy/horror hybrid, Homebodies. Yust makes atmospheric use of real urban locations, creating a convincing street backdrop for his actors to bounce off of, and handles the story with precise timing. He also choreographs the action and suspense elements of the film really well, particularly a tense foot-chase between Folks and Dot. The film’s second half is a little slower than the first half but that worked for Your Humble Reviewer because this is where the psychological angle of the film is allowed to sink in, building up to a memorable final scene.
Like the book it adapts, Trick Baby has more to offer than just cheap thrills. There’s a real depth to this material and it is deserving of a bigger audience.