In 1973, Pam Grier re-unted with writer/director Jack Hill and finally started to hit her stride in vehicles that were worthy of her after the tacky ‘Women in Prison’ of THE BIG BIRD CAGE and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA. COFFY has much much higher production values and cast courtesy of MGM.
After a misfire of an opening theme song, featuring the lame lyrics: “Coffy is the colour of your skin/Coffy is feelin’…somethin’ deep’, we meet Pam as what appears to be a junkie willing to trade herself for a fix from a dope-dealer. Once back at his apartment, she fixes him instead with an injection of shotgun bullets and the glorious trailer line: “This the end of your life, you motherfuckin’ dope pusher!”. Pam is theatre Nurse Coffin by day and a dealer-exterminating vigilante by night. A ‘rare black pearl’ indeed.
Coffy has a doting patrolman friend Carter (William Elliott) but prefers the charms of ambitous councilman Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw). She attempts to get them separately on side with her nocturnal mission but stops short of revealing she is wiping out society’s ills in her chosen way. As part of her secret activities, she visits an addict she patched up in hospital and gets valuable street intel about a high-rolling sexually-perverted gangster Mr Vitroni (Allan Arbus) and his pimp conduit King George (Robert DoQui).
Pam infiltrates the drug network by posing as a gorgeous exotic Jamaican. Her physical confidence in her looks is so alluring, your attention is taken away from her weak accent which consists of calling people ‘Maan’ by way of a cover. On entering, King George is so conspicuous a dresser he makes Antonio Fargas look subtle with his camel-coloured jumpsuit, matching coloured oversize glasses, broad-brimmed hat and cane. It isn’t long before Coffy uses him to get to Vitroni. Having the quality of future M*A*S*H regular Arbus is a plus in a film like this. He looks like a sleazy ‘70s record producer and enjoys a preliminary and laughably exploitative party scene food-fight that’s just an excuse for the ladies to rip each other’s tops off, girl-on-girl. Pam secretes razor-blades in her hair which famously cut one of the hookers who dares to tangle with her. Coffy is on resourceful lady. Arbus surveys Pam’s feistiness with evident ardour. “She’s like a wild animal. I’ve got have that girl tonight!” He relishes the gangster’s inhuman cruelty in bedroom violence and racism role-play well.
Jack Hill also re-teamed Grier with genre regular Sid Haig, here effortlessy adding to his rogues gallery of unsavoury villains, notably when torturing George to death by giving him the “new necktie” of a noose around his neck and dragging him to a protracted comedically over-extended death behind his car.
As Pam works her way toward finishing off all the villains including her corrupt boyfriend, the music score hits the cues a little too literally: “You can’t see right from wrong/Danger waits for you” the singer trills. Our heroine ensures when she’s about to be offed, its heroin of a faked kind she’s pumped full of before offing Haig and Bradshaw.
COFFY is a cut above the usual straight exploitation genre movies in that Hill slips a little socio-economic conscience into the mix. Rather than the usual irresponsibility of drugs sub-plots, there are references to the poverty trap and how drug-dealing is a sorely tempting easy profit for those on the breadline with no other options. Bradshaw makes a case to Coffy for the social good he can do, but as this is an obvious desperate measure at gunpoint, he scuppers his special pleading by revealing a new woman in his bedroom. Coffy ends his campaign – permanently.
With this film, at last Pam Grier was given an opportunity to develop her range and her dialogue delivery is more certain. Her inner torment when Bradshaw tries to brainwash her into compliance at the end is the most convincing she’s been in deeply emotional scenes. Hill may also have helped in giving her the time that previous potboiler trash wouldn’t have allowed. Pam emerges as a resourceful, capable action star with an appealingly unforced, radiant sexual confidence and a maternal warmth supported by compassionate story-lines. Rightfully, she is one of the most important role models for female emancipation in 1970s cinema.