Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Shaft

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, August 7, 2000

I got to feelin’ like a machine. That’s no way to feel.

Special features

Awards Listing1
Cast Information2
Featurette6
Trailer4

This is a decent detective flick. It has attitude, but some of that attitude has gone stale over thirty years. Note that while many of the on-line sites list a “director’s commentary” by director Gordon Parks, the DVD does not have one. That’s a big disappointment, especially since the DVD is also not enhanced for widescreen television.

RecommendationRent
DirectorGordon Parks
WritersErnest Tidyman, John D. F. Black
Movie Rating5
Transfer Quality6
Overall Rating4
Formats
  • Letterbox
  • Pan and Scan

“No one understands him but his woman.” I’m pretty sure more people remember the theme song from Shaft than remember Shaft the movie. This Shaft character is actually a bit of a jerk. His girlfriend (black, Gwenn Mitchell) tells him “I love you” while he’s going out on the town looking to get killed and he replies “I know”. Later on he kicks a girl (white, Margaret Warncke) out of bed as soon as she wakes up after a one-night stand. Actually, this one I can understand. You just met this guy last night in a bar and you sleep until early afternoon in his bed? When he had already left in the morning?

This is vintage seventies. The movie takes place in January, 1971 in and around Harlem. Old, faded posters for musicals such as “Hair” litter the walls. Drew Bundini Brown (Muhammed Ali’s trainer) plays one of “Bumpy” Jonas’ men. “Don’t you pull that heavy black number on me,” says officer Androzzi (Charles Cioffi).

Shaft is a private detective in Harlem. Vic Androzzi is one of his contacts in the police department. Something’s going down in Harlem and Vic wants to know what it is before the bodies start piling up. Shaft has no idea at all, but he isn’t going to tell Vic that. Vic clearly considers Shaft a close friend, but Shaft holds his own feelings close to the bone. Shaft’s relationship, strained, with an old friend from “the streets” is similar. Ben Buford is a leader in the revolution, and Shaft couldn’t care less one way or the other about that shit. Not sure that writer Ernest Tidyman cares a bit more: “Don’t you try to bullshit me,” says “Bumpy” Jonas to Buford, “We all on the hustle. I sell broads and dope and numbers. You sell crap and blue skies. It’s all the same game.”

This is a decent detective flick, with a little bit of attitude throughout, some mystery in the beginning, intrigue in the middle, and simple action at the end. The production values are quite high for that time period, especially considering that this film was the forerunner of the “blaxploitation” genre.

The video is pretty good “for its age”. It’s not enhanced, and you can see scratches occasionally, but it otherwise is pretty clear and clean.

There aren’t a whole lot of extras. Originally, there was supposed to be a director’s commentary, but it was pulled. As I write this, Amazon still has the director’s commentary listed as a feature. When I originally informed them that the disk didn’t have one, instead of fixing their listing, they immediately sent me a new Shaft disk to “replace the damaged one”! I don’t know whether to count that as really good customer service or unbridled, our-database-is-always-right, egocentrism.

While looking for the non-existent director’s commentary, I saw a bit of the French subtitles. It reminded me of watching a Hong Kong movie where the actors say something that takes twenty seconds and the subtitle is “Good job, Jim.”

“Hey, what’s happenin’ Monty?”

“Same old shit, sixes and sevens, Shaft.”

became

“Quoi de neuf, Marty?”

“La routine, Shaft.”

And “Oh, they had heat on them” became “Ils étaient armés”, that is, “they were armed”. Literally true, but it loses something in the translation.

The featurette, “Shaft on Location”, is pretty cool. It is mostly about making the music, and uses original footage of Isaac Hayes and his musicians making the music for Shaft.

There are also three trailers: one for “Shaft”, one for “Shaft’s Big Score” and one for “Shaft in Africa”.

The “cast information” is extraordinarily lame. Of the actors, it lists only Richard Roundtree and Moses Gunn, and only lists extra information for Roundtree. Gunn’s name is highlighted as if it has information behind it, but isn’t part of the menu.

The “Awards Listing” is even worse. It lists one award: Isaac Hayes’ “Best Song” Academy Award for the theme song, even though Roundtree’s description says that he won a Golden Globe for “Shaft”.

All in all, you’d have to be a pretty big fan to go ahead and buy this. But if you haven’t seen it, I do recommend renting it. It’s a good movie with historical value for film buffs.

Recommendation: Rent

DirectorGordon Parks
WritersErnest Tidyman, John D. F. Black
Spoken languagesEnglish, French
SubtitleEnglish
Special FeaturesAwards Listing, Cast Information, Featurette, Trailer
More links

If you enjoyed Shaft…

If you enjoy hard-boiled, you might also be interested in Casablanca, The Night Stalker, The Seven Samurai, The Usual Suspects, Tokyo Drifter, Bordersnakes, and The Blowtop.