Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Seventies Cinema Revival: Shaft's Big Score

Monday, August 18, 2008

Seventies Cinema Revival: Shaft's Big Score

by Tony Dayoub

With the passing of the legendary Isaac Hayes last weekend, private dick John Shaft has been on my mind a lot lately. In fact, flipping through cable channels the other night, I happened on a Shaft marathon, on TV One. But though Hayes deserves a large part of the credit for putting Shaft (1971) on the map with his Oscar-winning theme song, there are three other men whose contributions cannot be ignored. Nowhere are their contributions more evident than in the underrated sequel Shaft's Big Score (1972).

Sure, the first Shaft is a landmark film, inducted into the National Film Registry in the year 2000, for its cultural significance. But even watching it today, it is pretty self-conscious about it's importance. Richard Roundtree brings an undeniable regality to the role, but the script by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black lays it on a little thick when it comes to Shaft's racially charged anti-authoritarian streak. Here is a conversation between two cops about Shaft:
Tom: Hey, where the hell are you going, Shaft?
Shaft: To get laid, where the hell you going?(Laughs)
Tom: (to Androzzi) That boy's got a lotta mouth on him.
Lt. Androzzi: The boy's man enough to back it up, too.
Tom: What'd he tell ya'?
Lt. Androzzi: Nothin'.
Tom: You gotta lean on that kind!
Lt. Androzzi: You don't lean on that kind.

And another exchange between Shaft and a girlfriend:
Shaft: Sorry, I can't make it.
Ellie: You got problems, baby?
Shaft: (Laughs) Yeah, I got a couple of 'em. I was born black. And I was born poor.

And aesthetically, Hayes' monumental score overshadows the wonderful atmosphere created by the director, former Life magazine photojournalist, Gordon Parks. Parks really captures the New York of 1971, shooting on location in Times Square and Shaft's neighborhood of Greenwich Village, even down to the espresso with lemon peel he orders at the local coffeehouse.

But what Shaft's Big Score affords us is the opportunity to see the singular John Shaft, divorced from Hayes addictive musical styling, in a less racially volatile context than the first Shaft. For example, Parks, renaissance man that he was, composed the sequel's score when Hayes was unavailable to do so. In many ways, this score is more evocative of the time than Hayes' score is. Though structurally similar to the first score, with the slow build up before the arrival of the vocalist, and the interjection of female voices throughout, the second score's use of horns is more jazz-tinged and less funky than the first one. Check out Parks' main theme, "Blowin' Your Mind" with vocals by O.C. Smith.

Parks skillfully ratchets up the tension through the use of parallel editing in the clip above. Midway into the film, Shaft gets worked over pretty good in the speakeasy-like casino in the back of Mother Ike's, a bar owned by his antagonist, Gus Mascola (underplayed with uncharacteristic quiet relish by Joseph Mascolo). Again using the parallel editing to enhance the action he cuts between two go-go dancers gyrating while covered only in body paint, and Shaft getting his ass handed to him by Mascola's enforcers in slow-motion, while the song "Move On In" is heard over the parallel action. Like a true auteur, Parks is able to marry his music to his images in this film in a way he couldn't in Shaft. The emotionality and physicality evoked by the marriage of the two leaves all political subtext behind, and strips the character of John Shaft to his essence.

This essence was conceived by a white author, Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman was the author of all of the Shaft novels, and brought his pulpy style to the movies when he wrote the screenplays for The French Connection, Shaft, and of course, Shaft's Big Score. One of the few whites to ever win an NAACP award, I suspect that his first Shaft was rewritten by John D.F. Black to be more topical. Shaft's Big Score is less concerned with Shaft's chip on his shoulder, and more intrigued by the detective's ability to maneuver through the various worlds of cops, mobsters, and underground New York. This movie's Shaft is aware of the "street survival" game and how to play it, as we hear in his exchange with a police captain:
Bollin: How come we never hassled Cal Asby? Go ahead, ask me.
Shaft: You never hassled him 'cause he's probably layin' some heavy bread on you guys every month at the precinct.

Perceptive enough to know the cops are looking for the easiest way to solve the murder of his pal, Asby, Shaft is able to stall them from going after him, and manipulates Captain Bollin into circumstances where he must confront the threat of Mascola's encroachment into black Queens. Tidyman does this by retaining Shaft's cunning creative approach to fighting crime, in this case teaming up with two popular miscreants from the first Shaft, Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) and his associate, Willy (Drew Bundini Brown), in order to protect Queens from Mascola's crew. These setups and double-crosses are evocative of film noir more than anything else. By casting African Americans in this neo-noir landscape, with little fanfare about race politics attending the event, Tidyman actually makes more of a positive statement. He demonstrates how any man, regardless of color, can successfully fit into a traditional genre movie without resorting to the preachy heavy-handedness of the first film.

And what of the actor who personified the cool detective? Roundtree was consistent in his excellent performances throughout the first three movies, the little-seen TV spinoff, and the 2000 John Singleton remake/sequel. Good-looking, educated, and smooth, his Shaft was equal to James Bond in producing envy among male fans, and admiration from female ones. Roundtree brought a roguish, but regal quality to the man, that was sorely missed in Samuel Jackson's take in the Singleton version where he played his namesake nephew. Only Roundtree can keep our sympathies when he beds down with a crook's seductive mistress while investigating his own girlfriend's brother's death in Shaft's Big Score. Sadly, a major portion of his role as John Shaft was cut out of the 2000 sequel, where he was supposed to team up with his nephew to take down the criminal. One can't help but wonder if audiences would have embraced the original actor's return, especially in light of Roundtree's resurgence in the popular eye in recent years in such hit shows as Heroes and Desperate Housewives.

Shaft's Big Score gives us a chance to appreciate the talents of three of the co-conspirators in the creation of a memorable film icon. It does so because it is a straight crime neo-noir with a captivating leading man, involving characters, a strong sense of setting, and less race politics to distract us from the thrills of this escapist entertainment. Watch it today, and let me know your thoughts on the film.

1 comment:

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, you've been tagged: