Sunday, August 30, 2009

Big Apple Time Capsule Pt. 4: SHAFT'S BIG SCORE!

The fourth 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 ... (for the complete series so far, click here).

"Stay outta Queens!"

- A gangster's warning in SHAFT'S BIG SCORE!

Fortunately, the makers of SHAFT'S BIG SCORE! (1972), the sequel to the previous year's blockbuster SHAFT, didn't heed that warning. This time, instead of restricting their cameras to lower Manhattan and Harlem, they ventured into the Outer Boros for some gritty on-location filming along the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront during a snowy New York winter. With director Gordon Parks Sr. again at the helm, the film was shot by Urs Furrer, the DP on SHAFT as well as another essential '70s N.Y. film, THE SEVEN-UPS.

SHAFT'S BIG SCORE! is far from a great movie. It lacks some of the first film's freshness, and seems to have been hastily shot and edited (it opened in June 1972, less than a year after the first film was released). In addition to directing, Parks also composed the jazzy score (and has a cameo as a croupier at a mob casino). Unfortunately, though Isaac Hayes contributed an already-recorded instrumental ("Type Thang") to the soundtrack, his iconic "Theme from Shaft" is nowhere to be found.

What did get better this time around was Richard Roundtree in the title role. He's much more confident and natural here than in the first film (his debut), really coming into his own as leading man and action hero (he also gets to show off a lot of great '70s leatherwear and turtlenecks). Also returning were Moses Gunn and Drew "Bundini" Brown as Harlem mob boss Bumpy Jonas (loosely based on real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson) and his sidekick Willy, who provides much of the film's comic relief.

Not all the performances are at that level though, and the film sometimes seems indifferently directed. There's an odd extra beat after many of the line readings, and what should have been a brutal and kinetic hallway fight is shot in slow motion. Some of this may be due to the film's relatively low budget and tight schedule. After the success of the first film, one imagines the race was on to have a sequel in theaters by the following summer (in the liner notes to the soundtrack album, Parks says the entire score was "conceived, written and recorded in a little over two weeks, an exhausting two weeks.")

The screenplay was written by Oscar winner Ernest Tidyman, Shaft's creator, who later novelized the script and went on to write five more Shaft novels as well. As in the first film, a brewing white-black mob war is at the center of the plot. A pre-credits bomb blast kills a Queens funeral home director and numbers kingpin, who also happens to be Shaft's girlfriend's brother. Soon, gangsters are after her as well, and Shaft suspects her brother's shady partner is as much to blame as the white mobsters "from downtown" who want to move in on the Queens numbers racket (in the novel, the bombed office is located on Myrtle Avenue).

The chief mafioso is played by soap opera star Joe Mascola (whose character is named, cleverly, "Gus Mascola"). His right-hand man is played by the late, great character actor Joe Santos, a familiar face on television for nearly 40 years, most recently in the 2004 season of THE SOPRANOS. Mascola gets to show off his clarinet-playing talents in the film, as well as model an assortment of dressing gowns and smoking jackets. The imposing Julius Harris pops in occasionally as the obligatory hard-boiled police captain trying to get Shaft to cooperate with the authorities.

Though much of the film takes place in Queens, we also get another look at Shaft's ridiculously large Greenwich Village apartment, complete with fireplace, spiral staircase and a bookshelf well-stocked with African-American literature (Frank Yerby's novel FAIR OAKS, Henry Seaton's LION IN THE MORNING and Earl Shorris' OFAY are visible, along with Theodore White's THE VIEW FROM THE FORTIETH FLOOR). Behind the bookshelf is Shaft's Secret Stash, including a new-at-the-time-but-now-obsolete High Standard HS-10B automatic shotgun, which he unleashes on the mobsters during a chilly standoff at Queens' Cypress Hills Cemetery (in the novelization, he wields a plain old sawed-off 12-gauge pump).
At times, SBS! is more James Bond than Shaft, a shift in tone emphasized by the film's poster (top). But whatever its flaws, the movie redeems itself in its final half-hour, with an expertly filmed car chase along the Brooklyn waterfront (with Shaft riding shotgun - literally - in a red 1972 Plymouth Sebring) that turns into a boat chase and ends with a Bondian man-vs-helicopter duel in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Though it may not have had the cultural impact of its predecessor, SHAFT'S BIG SCORE! is actually a very entertaining New York crime/action film. In some ways, it's looser and livelier than the first film, downplaying the racial aspects and avoiding some of that film's stiffness. And Roundtree is a pleasure to watch - cool, calm, collected and dynamic. Even without Isaac Hayes' theme behind him, he's still the man.

**** Above right: Roundtree and Parks on location filming the Cypress Hills Cemetery shootout.

NEXT TIME: "The French Connection"


pattinase (abbott) said...

Always interesting to see how New York was portrayed in the late sixties, early seventies-like THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. Or in books like DESPERATE CHARACTERS, where it seems truly like--well, like Detroit today.

wstroby said...

pattinase (abbott) said...
Always interesting to see how New York was portrayed in the late sixties, early seventies-like THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. Or in books like DESPERATE CHARACTERS, where it seems truly like--well, like Detroit today.

7:29 AM

Well, COYLE actually takes place in Boston, but it does have that gritty early '70s feel. Aside from DETROIT 9000, which I've only seen clips of, were there other notable '70s films shot in the city? The New York Times review of D9000 does mention that the girlfriend of the hero (a black detective played by Hari Rhodes) teaches at Wayne State U.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't think so. But New York in the seventies always looks like Detroit today, best portrayed in 8 Mile.
Gran Torino, based on a story set in MN, made it look like Detroit has a big Hmong population. They actually live in the suburbs like the rest of us. The city is left to those who can't get out. HUNG, the current HBO series, only uses some introductory shots from Detroit as far as I can tell. And they don't have the courage to show the worst of it.

wstroby said...

I was thinking maybe Paul Schrader's BLUE COLLAR, which I know was shot at the Checker plant there. But I don't know how much of the city you actually see in the film.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it