There’s a scene in Hell up in Harlem (1973)—no, don’t worry, you’re not expected to recognize the title—in which the henchmen of crime kingpin Tommy Gibbs take on a gang of Tokyo drug couriers working for “The Syndicate.” As Gibbs (Fred “The Hammer” Williamson) snarls in a voice-over, “We’re gonna shut down their Japanese connection.” And so Gibbs’ gang ambushes the drug runners on a Manhattan side street. A red Rolls-Royce screeches to the curb. A phalanx of Japanese tough guys tumbles out. And the weirdest fight scene in the history of action movies ensues—judo versus street fight, sleek ninjas versus pimped-out macks, literally in the shadow of the United Nations. It never seems to occur to anybody that there’s no reason why a phalanx of Japanese tough guys has suddenly cropped up in a picture populated to that point exclusively by superbad blacks, corrupt whites, and sinister Italians. But the scene makes perfect sense in the world of American International Pictures, the world created by B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff, whose death was one of the stories that went largely unnoticed in the days after Sept. 11.
The interracial punch-up was sure to have made sense to Arkoff himself, the purest kind of sense: It was a simple economy of scale. Martial-arts pictures were big in 1973, and the scene allowed him to season his blaxploitation with chopsocky. Arkoff was nothing if not economical. He made 463 pictures over 30-odd years, almost every one a model of thrift and speed. (A typical AIP film cost $300,000 and was shot in a week.) There was one exception to his thriftiness: He was never stingy about the sheer volume of stuff he put on a screen. An AIP picture is a crazy salad of pop-cultural references. It moves like a bullet train, and it never lingers too long on any one idea.
Or, for that matter, on any one genre. Arkoff was a finger-in-the-wind filmmaker who never let a trend go by without having his cut at it, whether it was hot-rod pictures, motorcycle pictures, spy pictures, or youth-in-trouble pictures, and he didn’t hesitate to move on when the Zeitgeist shifted. His willingness to cut bait was both ruthless and inventive. Take his best-remembered pictures, the lovably dimwitted beach-party movies. These films have made such a dent in pop culture that it’s surprising to note the six-picture series lasted a mere two years, from 1963 to 1965. And when the wheel started to turn, Arkoff was ready, keeping one foot on the beach while he reached ahead in search of the next big thing. Would it be spy movies? Fine, he’d put Frankie Avalon in a trench coat for Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. Ski movies? He’d send the beach party gang to the mountains for Ski Party (including a hallucinogenically strange ski lodge cameo by James Brown). These movies, the ones that bridge genres, may be his finest achievements—perfect little symphonies of bet-hedging, cameos of their times, and unforgettably odd. (Click here for a list of suggested rentals.)
If Arkoff had a theme as a filmmaker, which is on the face of it a truly silly notion, it was the role of the outsider in an unsympathetic society. The protagonists of AIP pictures tended to live on the outside of the respectable world, whether they were the street-smart heroes of blaxploitation pictures like Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, or the castaway kids of Reform School Girl, or the mad Dr. Moreau in his surprisingly well-equipped island laboratory. The big gag (to be precise, the only gag) in the series-starting Beach Party is that the teens on the beach constitute a weird tribe to be analyzed at a safe distance through the telescope of visiting anthropologist Bob Cummings. (Safe, that is, until he visits the beach, flirts with Annette, shaves his beard, and undergoes a sort of midlife crisis.) At the most basic level, this certainly represents a naked attempt to appeal to the teen-age ticket buyers who were AIP’s bread and butter. But it also reflects Arkoff’s own status in Hollywood as a producer who came late to the game—he founded AIP in partnership with James H. Nicholson in 1954, when he was 36—and never won the respect of the movie community. Not that he seemed to care much. “We went into business to make money,” he said. And he did. Unlike the majors, AIP never had a money-losing year. Between 1954 and 1960, according to the New York Times, it never even made a money-losing picture.
Late in life the accolades came, as much for Arkoff’s longevity and the careers he helped to launch (Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola) as for anything he ever put on the screen. Unsentimental as always, he had the grace to be bemused. “I suppose time can dignify anything,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. “Dignity” may not be the precisely right word to attach to Arkoff’s pictures. But they’re hard to top for exuberance, silliness, and something else that’s more elusive: the amber quality of a moment caught and captured in a pop culture that moves faster and faster, like a kid in a hot rod, racing away down the beach.