(SLWB - April 15, 2015)
One neat little bonus of going on a Neo Noir hunt is finding those diamonds in the rough that come completely out of left field. Sometimes a film is hyped so fully as one thing that its never looked upon or considered as any thing else. This film especially so since its considered one of the first of its own genre.
Shaft (1971) has been called the first blaxploitation flick, screw that and it's derogatory connotations (think Sergio Leone vs the majority of "Spaghetti" Westerns as a reference point), its actually not only a great PI film, directed by Gordon Parks (acclaimed photojournalist for Life magazine ) but also shot in a very noir-ish style by Urs Furrer. Between the eye of the director and the skill of the cinematographer the film looks beautiful. The shots of Manhattan, The Village, Harlem circa 1970 are gorgeous. It's sleazy Times Square/42nd Street at fin d'une époque, before Disneyfication eradicated it all.
Establishing shot, an aerial view of 7th Avenue Manhattan looking North towards Broadway and Times Square. A cacophony of traffic blares skyward, we look down upon madly scintillating 42nd Street theater marquees, classic Hollywood product, Lancasters The Scaphuters, Redfords’s Little Faus And Big Halsey competing with triple X features He And She, School for Sex and The Wild Females, this ain’t Busby Berkeley Territory anymore. Isaac Hayes’ soul and funk-styled iconic theme song begins to pulsate the title appears over a subway entrance as leather clad Shaft glides up to the trash littered gum stained sidewalk and jaywalks his way across the main stem. This title sequence segues into the beginning of the story when Shaft is alerted by Marty the blind news stand paper seller that two cats were looking for him.
Shaft is based on an Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black screenplay from a book by Tidyman. The dialogs are all spot on in 70‘s hip jive. It's co-produced by Stirling Silliphant (who wrote late classic noirs, 5 Against the House, Nightfall, The Lineup and also neo noir -ish In The Heat Of The Night).
What's sad is Shaft gets right what practically every Mike Hammer, the quintessential NY P.I, based film neglects, and that is a real feel for the gritty noir, on location, underbelly side of New York City. (save Allen Baron’s 1961 Blast Of Silence, and Armand Assante's I, The Jury(1982)) and even the latter doesn't spend near enough time in the streets
Shaft is a very plausible re-imagining of the classic private eye flick. The P.I. was always about cool this go round it is about back COOL. Richard Roundtree is perfect as the suave hip protagonist John Shaft, a good detective, grudgingly getting genuine respect from all.
St. John, Gunn, Roundtree
Moses Gunn is incredibly good as tough crime boss Bumpy Jonas showing quite a bit of range as he pleads with Shaft to take his case. Charles Cioffi as Androzzi Shaft's NYPD detective cop buddy holds his own and runs interference between Shaft and the department. Drew Bundini Brown is Bumpy henchman Willy, Christopher St. John is Ben Buford a former hood rat friend of Shaft who is now a black militant, Antonio Fargas is great as streetwise Bunky. Character actor Lee Steele plays a blind news vender. Shaft is a Neo Noir New York City wet dream, it hits on all cylinders, check it out. 10/10