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Shaft (1971) (Criterion Collection)
Gordon Parks' 1971 crime thriller Shaft really hooks you from its opening credits; as leather coat-clad Richard Roundtree struts to the sounds of Isaac Hayes, dodging traffic and shooting the shit with street vendors, you cannot help but smile. Who is this cool man? He is the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks; he is Shaft. After decades of treating black characters like caricatures, the movie industry began to change. Shaft began what film critics would label "Blaxploitation cinema;" a nod to the violent and sex-heavy films popular in 1960s midnight screenings. Some black organizations were critical of Shaft and the films it inspired, branding it exploitative in glorifying violence and gangsterism. Others celebrated the film for its minority characters who felt like actual people instead of sanitized, offensive stereotypes. This film's plot is not groundbreaking, but where Shaft excels is in creating a mood.
Roundtree is infinity cool as detective John Shaft. He is a man who uses his charm and sex appeal for his constant benefit, and Shaft takes no shit from anyone. An adaptation of Ernest Tidyman's novel, Shaft sees its hero hired by Harlem mob boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to rescue his daughter (Sherri Brewer) from the Italian mobsters he is feuding with. This detective story is largely forgettable, as Shaft is more concerned with letting Roundtree chew scenery. With quotable, sassy dialogue and a crackling ad campaign to back it up, Shaft became a cultural phenomenon and blockbuster for its black director. This film puts you in an authentic Harlem, and its minority characters are finally, gleefully allowed to win against the bad guys.
Shaft has been called the "first black superhero," though he is certainly fallible and mortal. The character bobs and weaves between strata of New York City society; effortlessly moving from the seedy corners of Harlem to the hip Greenwich Village and the hustle and bustle of Midtown. As the story unfolds, Shaft never bows to gangster Bumpy or white police Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi). The film offers interesting depictions of sexual and racial politics, touching on Shaft's treatment of women and a group of black militants led by Ben Buford (Christopher St. John) that certainly recalls the Black Panthers. After a one-night stand with white Linda (Margaret Warncke), she remarks about his "shitty" post-coital treatment.
Although it was not the first Blaxploitation film - that honor goes to Cotton Comes to Harlem - Shaft was wildly popular and a big win for Hollywood studio MGM. Viewers loved the film and went back to see it again and again. The crime action is certainly entertaining, but I appreciate Shaft as a groundbreaking character showcase of cool. From the gritty cinematography of Urs Furrer to the crackling script to Roundtree's electric performance, Shaft is a toe-tapping good time from beginning to end. This is a film that takes place at a certain time in history and represents that crossroads authentically. With Shaft on the case, things are always going to be interesting.
Shaft arrives as part of the Criterion Collection with a 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative. The end result is impressive, and it is easy to forget the film is now 50 years old. Outdoor scenes in the city are crisp, clear and impressively deep; the grain structure remains natural and filmic throughout; and close-ups reveal abundant texture and fine-object detail. Black levels are impressive, shadows rarely crush and colors are nicely saturated. There are no issues with film density, digital tinkering or noise reduction, and Shaft remains true to its cool, gritty roots.
You can watch the film with LPCM Mono or LPCM 2.0 stereo sound with optional English SDH subtitles. Like the transfer, these restored soundtracks are impressive. They do not, of course, sound like a modern blockbuster, but action and ambient elements are quite impressive, with plenty of spacing. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the score is quite groovy. Balance is spot-on, and there are no issues like crackling or distortion.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Criterion creates an excellent two-disc package that also includes the film's sequel, Shaft's Big Score! in HD with a mono LPCM soundtrack on the second disc. The two discs are packed in the typical Criterion clear case. There is two-sided artwork and a booklet with essays and film information. On the first disc you get Revisiting Shaft (32:57/HD), a new documentary with interviews from curator Rhea L. Combs, film scholar Racquel J. Gates, filmmaker George Nelson and music scholar Shana L. Redmond; Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location (10:48/SD) is an older piece about the production; Richard Roundtree (12:05/HD) is a 2010 interview with the actor; Isaac Hayes (34:13/SD) is a 1974 French television program about Hayes; The Soul Sound (12:03/HD) is a new piece about the film's score; Styling Shaft (15:47/HD) is another new piece with remarks from costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi; and things wrap up here with several Promotional Spots (5:15 total/HD).
The second disc offers the aforementioned sequel, as well as Listen to a Stranger: An Interview with Gordon Parks (19:12/SD), shout after the premiere of Big Score!; A Complicated Man: The Shaft Legacy (44:10/HD), a 2019 documentary with interviews from Roundtree, Samuel L. Jackson and others; John Shaft and the Black Detective Tradition (25:56/HD), a new piece about black detective features; Behind the Scenes (9:15/HD), a vintage look at the production of the sequel; and the sequel's Trailer (0:44/HD).
Criterion releases this landmark crime thriller in an exhaustive special edition with beautifully restored picture and sound. Shaft is less about plot than it is about cool; and the film is an authentic representation of the time, people and places depicted. This set also includes the sequel, Shaft's Big Score!, and a ton of extras that film fans will enjoy. DVD Talk Collector Series.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.