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"

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #4: THE OUT IS DEATH

The fourth installment of my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperbacks from the late 1980s and early '90s (for the others, just click on "Black Lizard Books" in the labels at bottom).

THE OUT IS DEATH by Peter Rabe


ORIGINAL PUBLICATION: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1957

THE STORY: Ex-mobster comes to the aid of an aging safecracker being manipulated by a gang of young thugs.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Classic hard-boiled pulp from one of the masters.

I've written about Peter Rabe before, most recently for one of Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Fridays. THE OUT IS DEATH was Rabe's third novel featuring masterless hood Daniel Port (I think it's the third, they were written and published in such a short period of time that it's hard to tell). A sort of American ronin, Port first appeared in 1956's DIG MY GRAVE DEEP, and TOID continues his adventures after leaving "The Stoker Mob" in some unnamed major American city. An amoral gangster battling even worse bad guys, Port is one of the predecessors of Donald E. Westlake's Parker, who would come along six years later, in 1962's THE HUNTER. Westlake often sang Rabe's praises in interviews, and rightly so. Along with Dan J. Marlowe, Rabe was one of the architects and greatest practitioners of post-war hard-boiled paperback-original noir.

In THE OUT IS DEATH, Port tries to rescue an old and infirm safecracker named Dalton from the clutches of a brutal young thug named Corday, who wants Dalton to go on one last job for him. It's a generational thing, as it turns out, with old school gangster Port going up against the '50s-style juvenile delinquents of Corday's gang. Doesn't take much to figure out who comes out on top. Suffice it to say that there were five Port novels in all, the last being 1959's TIME ENOUGH TO DIE. Black Lizard reprinted three and most have remained out of print since, though some are now showing up on Kindle.

TOID does bear similarities to Westlake's 1965 Stark novel THE JUGGER, the sixth book in the series, in which Parker travels to Nebraska to find out what happened to his contact and go-between, an aging safecracker named Joe Sheer, who's fallen prey to a corrupt small-town cop (in that sense, THE JUGGER also owes a debt to Marlowe's THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH). In THE JUGGER, though, Sheer is dead before Parker arrives (and Parker was prepared to kill him as a security measure anyway). In TOID, Port comes to Dalton's aid in time to save him from that fate, though he also has selfish reasons for getting involved, including Corday's va-va-voom girlfriend.

Here's a slice of classic Rabe understatement, as Port barrels his way through some thugs blocking his exit from a nightclub:

Port headed for the nearest exit guarded by only one man. The band stopped before he made it, and the sudden quiet was unearthly. After the silence there was bedlam again; chairs scraped, people laughed, and a buzz of voices rose from the tables.

The kid at the door saw Port coming, but he didn't expect much from a man running away.

Then the kid's arm was suddenly bent double. The pain grew like a fire running up his arm and bursting hot and big in his shoulder.

"It hurts less if you walk," said Port's voice close beside him, and they moved out of the door and into the alley.

If, like me, you've read and reread all the Stark books many times over (and sadly, there will be no more), be on the lookout for Rabe's Daniel Port novels. They're worth the effort.

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: Lionel White's THE KILLING (aka CLEAN BREAK)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Book of books

Back in June 1982, when I was attending college and living in St. Augustine, Fla., I decided to begin keeping an ongoing log of every book I read, noting the title, author and whether it was fiction or non-fiction.

Why I did it, I'm not sure. But I still have that original black-and-white composition notebook - even though it's falling apart slightly - and list every new book as I finish it. I break the lists up by year, drawing a demarcation line every June to make it easier to keep track of the titles and be able to tell what books I'd read in a given (June-to-June) year. Nowadays though, when I look back at earlier pages, I sometimes see titles I have no memory of reading at all - they ring not even the slightest bell.

Looking through the lists now, I can see that I read a lot of junk over the years - paperback action series, movie tie-ins and the like - but a lot of good stuff too. It's also a walk down Memory Lane. I can remember where I was and what I was doing in specific years based on the books I read. I see the first book I ever reviewed (Stephen King's THINNER, review published in the Asbury Park Press in Feb. 1985, shortly after the news of the "Richard Bachman" pseudonym broke). I also see books I remember vividly - as if I'd read them yesterday, instead of 20 years ago - listed right next to books I have absolutely no recall of whatsoever, and if you'd asked me if I'd read them, I'd answer no.

Here are some sample pages (click on images to enlarge):

From 1987-'88:

From 2001-'02:

And here's a quick by-the-numbers run-down:

Total Number of Books (June 1, 1982 to Aug. 10, 2009): 1,358

First Book Listed (June 1982): THE WAGES OF FEAR by Georges Arnaud (French suspenser about dynamite-hauling truck drivers, basis of 1953 film).

Most Recent Book Listed (Aug. 10, 2009): BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS by Barry N. Malzberg (a collection of essays by the N.J. science fiction/mystery author).

Most Read Year: June 1985 to June 1986, 81 books. (I had a lot of free time on my hands, I guess).

Least Read Year: June 2005 to June 2006, 20 books (Hey, I had other things going on).

Yearly Average: 50.2 books

Ratio of Fiction to Non-Fiction: 21 to 1

Complete Listing of Titles From a Single Page Chosen at Random, in the Order I Read Them:

From 1983-'84:

THE SIEGE OF TRENCHER'S FARM (source of the Peckinpah film STRAW DOGS) - Gordon M. Williams
THE TIN CRAVAT - Jack D. Hunter (second sequel to THE BLUE MAX)
THE REVOLT OF THE COCKROACH PEOPLE - Oscar Zeta Acosta (fictionalized memoir by Chicano activist immortalized in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS)
I MARRIED A DEAD MAN - Cornell Woolrich (deep into my Woolrich phase by this point)
ASSIGNMENT: BLACK VIKING - Edward S. Aarons (No. #25 in the Sam Durell action series published by Fawcett Gold Medal)
MASTER-AT-ARMS - Rafael Sabatini (one of my favorite novelists)
TOMOE GOZEN - Jessica Amanda Salmonson (samurai fantasy fiction)
THE OUTRIDER - Richard Harding (first of a futuristic series in a ROAD WARRIOR vein)
SCOUNDREL TIME - Lillian Hellman
THE STRANGER - Albert Camus
GONJI #3: SAMURAI COMBAT - T.C. Rypel (more samurai action)
THE BIG GRAB - John Trinian (pseudonymous caper novel by screenwriter/author Zekial Marko. Filmed in France as ANY NUMBER CAN WIN)
THE HUNTER - Richard Stark
THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE - Richard Stark (the Avon Stark reprints were starting to come out)
THE DOGS OF WAR - Frederick Forsyth
HORRIDO! - Col. Raymond Toliver and Trevor Constabile (profiles of WWII Luftwaffe fighter pilots)

I guess it doesn't get more eclectic than that. And that's just one page.

Anybody out there do something similar?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Signed firsts and summer in Asbury

For those who've asked about signed copies of my first two novels - THE BARBED-WIRE KISS and THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE (both of which have slipped out of print in recent months) - I'm told that Don Stine at Antic Hay Books still has some in stock, in both hardcover and paperback editions. I signed all of Don's stock back when he still had a physical store on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park, the site of one of my favorite signings ever, as part of a late night Asbury Park "Art After Dark" festival in 2005.

Though Antic Hay no longer has an actual storefront, Don continues to stock books on Shore authors and topics though, and has an extensive collection of memorabilia from the city's glory days (he'll probably have some signed firsts of GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER come January as well).

If you haven't been to Asbury lately, it's definitely worth the visit. The revitalization that has taken place, on the beachfront at least, is amazing. Where the boardwalk area was once a ghost town of ruined buildings and empty storefronts that brought to mind CARNIVAL OF SOULS, it's now lined with restaurants, shops, food stands and a water park.

Because of the stunted economy, not everything has come to fruition (an unfinished condo building on Ocean Avenue stands on the site of a previous unfinished condo building), but this has been the most concerted effort to bring Asbury Park around in decades. You can find hundreds of people on the boardwalk and beach any given day this summer. There's even talk of reopening the legendary Upstage coffehouse at Cookman and Bond, which should have been named some sort of musical landmark years ago if nothing else. Instead it sat empty and deserted for more than three decades.

So, to quote another Shore resident, here's one for Asbury, hoping that the best may be yet to come.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER: The Video (sort of)

Courtesy of Newark's own Wyclef Jean. This song, from his 1997 album "The Carnival," was a sort of spiritual inspiration for the novel in the very early days.

A remix can be found here. And here's a live version of the song featuring Soul Asylum.