That’s Blaxpolitation! 12: SHAFT (MGM 1971)

“That Shaft is a bad mother…”

“Shut your mouth!”

“But I’m talkin’ about Shaft”

“We can dig it!”

  • – lyrics from Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from SHAFT

1971’s SHAFT, starring Richard Roundtree as “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”, is the movie that kicked off the whole 70’s Blaxploitation phenomenon.  Sure, Mario Van Pebbles’ indie SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG was released three months earlier, but it’s X-rating kept younger audiences out of the theaters. SHAFT reached more people with it’s R rating, and the publicity machine of MGM behind it. In fact, John Shaft not only saved the day in the film, but helped save the financially strapped MGM from bankruptcy!

The opening sequence alone makes it worth watching, as the camera pans down the gritty mean streets of New York City (42nd Street, to be exact!) and that iconic funky theme song by Isaac Hayes kicks in! There’s a couple of heavy hitters on the prowl for private eye John Shaft… too bad for them! After Shaft throws one of them out of a window, his police frenemy Lt. Androzzi (Charles Cioffi ) wants some answers, including what’s brewing up in Harlem with rackets boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn).

Shaft wants to find out too, and soon discovers Bumpy’s daughter has been kidnapped, possibly by a radical militant gang led by Shaft’s old running buddy Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). He’s hired to find her, but when some of Buford’s crew are gunned down by unknown assailants, Shaft finds himself caught in a gang war between Bumpy and the Mafia. Being the ‘bad mother’ that he is, Our Man Shaft enlists the militants to aid him in rescuing Bumpy’s little girl from the mob in a wild climax.

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft is closer in spirit to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer than PI’s like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe . Shaft’s a take-no-crap kinda guy, as quick with fists as he is with his wits, and of course the ladies all love him! He’s got attitude to spare, especially when sparring with white establishment cats like Androzzi. Roundtree went on to portray the super sleuth in two sequels (1972’s SHAFT’S BIG SCORE and 1973’s SHAFT IN AFRICA) and a brief TV series (1973-74). Some of his other films include EMBASSY (1972), CHARLEY ONE-EYE (1973), EARTHQUAKE (1974), DIAMONDS (1975), and AN EYE FOR AN EYE (1981).

Director Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Director Gordon Parks was a true renaissance man. He first gained notoriety as a photographer for LIFE Magazine, and turned his autobiographic novel THE LEARNING TREE into a 1969 Warner Brothers film, making Parks the first black director for a major studio production. He was editorial director for ESSENCE Magazine from 1970-73, and an accomplished poet, painter, and musician. Among his other screen works are the buddy-cop pic THE SUPER COPS (1974), THOMASINE & BUSHROD (1974, a sort-of Blaxploitation Bonnie & Clyde), and the biography of folk-blues legend LEADBELLY (1976). His son Gordon Parks Jr. was director of another iconic Blaxploitation flick, SUPER FLY (1972).

Parks’ photographic eye brilliantly captures New York at its down-and-dirtiest, and handles the obligatory 70’s sex scenes with taste and discretion. The script by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black (based on Tidyman’s novel) is righteous, but I know what you’ve all really been waiting for, so here’s that super-cool opening credits scene featuring Isaac Hayes’ super-funky Oscar-winning “Theme from SHAFT”!:

More in the THAT’S BLAXPLOITATION series:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

SUPER FLY

THREE THE HARD WAY

HELL UP IN HARLEM

SLAUGHTER

 

Somebody’s Watching Me: Jane Fonda in KLUTE (Warner Brothers 1971)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

I was going to post on KLUTE last week, but between my Internet service going on the fritz and getting swept up in Oscar Fever, I never got around to it. Better late than never though, and KLUTE is definitely a film worth your time. It’s a neo-noir directed by that master of 70’s paranoia, Alan J. Pakula, who’s also responsible for THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and SOPHIE’S CHOICE. KLUTE is both an intense thriller and character study, with an Oscar-winning performance by Jane Fonda.

PI John Klute is sent to New York City to investigate the disappearance of his friend, Tom Gruneman. Seems Gruneman has been sending obscene letters to Bree Daniels, a call girl he met there. Klute sets up shop in her apartment building, shadowing her and tapping her phone. When he finally goes to question her, Bree says she doesn’t remember Gruneman, but it’s possible he could be the guy who once beat the crap out of her. Bree takes Klute to meet her ex-boyfriend/pimp Frank, who leads them to a hooker named Arlyn Page, now a hopeless junkie. Klute thinks Arlyn may hold the key to the mystery, until she’s found dead in the river. Meanwhile, Bree has the strangest felling that Klute isn’t the only person who’s been watching her….

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Jane Fonda won a well-deserved Oscar for her role as Bree. Tough on the outside, vulnerable on the inside, Bree’s a hot mess, only feeling empowered when she’s turning tricks, as she explains to her shrink. When she first meets Klute, she berates him (“And what’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You like talking, a button freak?…Or maybe you like to have us wash your tinkle. Goddamned, hypocrite squares!”), but soon they sleep together, and she discovers she has feelings for him, making her extremely uncomfortable. It’s an edgy, honest performance, and Fonda nails it from beginning to end.

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The title role is played by Donald Sutherland, and he’s Fonda’s equal here. Klute’s more introverted than Bree, and equally awkward in expressing his feelings. Sutherland underplays as John Klute, and shows why he’s one of the best actors of the era. The supporting cast is more than capable, with Roy Scheider as Bree’s slimy former pimp particularly noteworthy. Charles Cioffi contributes a creepy piece of villainy, constrained yet obviously unhinged. The criminally underrated Dorothy Tristan has a brief but memorable turn as the pathetic Arlyn. Jean Stapleton (the beloved Edith of ALL IN THE FAMILY) and Shirley Stoler (THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, SEVEN BEAUTIES) are recognizable in small parts, but if you blink you’ll miss Sylvester Stallone, Warhol superstar Candy Darling, and porn icon Harry Reems in the disco scene.

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The great Gordon Willis does his usual superb job as Cinematographer, as he did with THE GODFATHER movies and his work with Woody Allen. Carl Lerner’s editing and Chris Newman’s sound add to the film’s paranoid mood. KLUTE doesn’t often get in the discussion of the classic movies of the 70’s, but it can stand right there with the best of them. The entire cast and crew combine to give KLUTE an existential sense of dread, a feeling that resonates as deeply as ever in today’s modern world.

 

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