Sunday, February 08, 2009
Big Apple Time Capsule Pt. 3: SHAFT
The third in an occasional series of posts about New York City in the 1970s as seen through the prism of that decade's shot-on-location crime dramas ...
SHAFT (1971) isn't a great film by any means. Its reputation rests mostly on the fact it was one of the earliest entries in the 1970s blaxploitation cycle and that, quality-wise, it's miles above the films that followed it. Based on Ernest Tidyman's 1970 novel, SHAFT is really a straightforward private eye/action film, albeit one featuring an aggressive African-American hero (Richard Roundtree in a tentative but star-making performance) facing down white villains, with black militants and Harlem gangsters as secondary characters (Tidyman was white, as was the film's co-writer, John D.F. Black). The direction, by Gordon Parks Sr., is inconsistent, the film's pacing erratic, and a lot of the performances aren't quite up to par. It's also marred by what was obviously a limited budget. What it does have, of course, is Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning score and some great New York locations circa 1970.
These begin with the film's opening credits, which play out over a crane shot of Times Square that then pans down 42nd Street, past movie marquees (THE SCALPHUNTERS and LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSEY are two of the films advertised) and picks up John Shaft (Roundtree) as he comes up the stairs from the subway. He then casually strolls into the middle of the intersection, dodging cabs and flipping drivers the bird. It's a wintry New York (January 1971 according to a calendar we see), as shot by cinematographer Urs Furrer, and Shaft's breath clouds in front of him as he makes his way to his office off Times Square (46th and Sixth in the novel, above "the offices of second-rate lawyers, small show-business types (and) a couple of novelty-merchandise jobbers"). Along the way, he passes posters for Broadway's HAIR and LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS, and a movie theater showing BARBARELLA. Later in the film, he buys roasted chestnuts from a vendor outside the Victoria Theatre at Broadway and 46th, showing a double-bill of COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS. A cab ride takes him past marquees for GET CARTER and a double-feature of PATTON and M*A*S*H.
The action eventually moves uptown, after a gangboss (Moses Gunn) hires Shaft to find his kidnapped daughter. Shaft walks the Harlem streets accompanied by Hayes' bluesy "Soulsville," and passes under the Apollo Theatre marquee on 125th Street, this time advertising a performance by Edwin Starr. There's even a cameo by Antonio Fargas as a street informant named "Bunky."
It isn't until about halfway through the film that we get to see Shaft's West Village digs. His bachelor pad is an airy, book-lined studio on Jane Street, complete with hardwood floors, spiral staircase and fine art on the walls. It's across from the now-defunct No Name Bar on Hudson Street, Shaft's hangout, where he outwits a pair of gangsters on his trail. We also get a walking tour of the neighborhood that includes Cafe Wha?, the recently closed Minetta Tavern and the still-operating Cafe Reggio on MacDougal Street, where Shaft sips espresso.
SHAFT does have other pleasures. In addition to Hayes' score (which, beyond the classic title theme, is quite extensive and jazzy), it has great supporting performances by Gunn as Bumpy Jonas ("Knocks Persons" in the novel) - yet another movie character based on real-life Harlem mobster Bumpy Johnson - and Drew Bundini Brown, then best known as Muhammad Ali's cornerman, as Jonas' sidekick, Willy.
Like all cinematic time capsules, SHAFT sometimes feels painfully dated. And though Tidyman went on to win an Oscar for writing THE FRENCH CONNECTION (and pen six more Shaft novels), the screenplay feels choppy. Part of this is probably due to the rewrite process, during which, according to Tidyman's son Nathaniel Rayle, Black was brought in to embroider the script with "white Hollywood's concept of black dialect." Either way, the film was a huge hit and spawned two sequels, the first of which found Shaft battling for survival in a dangerous and alien world rarely seen on the big screen - Queens.
NEXT TIME: "Shaft's Big Score"