Film Review – SHAFT (1971)

SHAFT (1971, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., USA, 100 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Mono, Cert: 15, Crime Thriller) ∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas), Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi), Christopher St. John (Ben Buford), Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore), Lawrence Pressman (Tom Hannon), Victor Arnold (Charlie), Sherri Brewer (Marcy), Rex Robbins (Rollie), Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene), Margaret Warncke (Linda), Joseph Leon (Byron Leibowitz), Arnold Johnson (Cul), Dominic Barto (Patsy), George Strus (Carmen), Edmund Hashim (Lee), Drew Bundini Brown (Willy).
       Producer: Joel Freeman; Director: Gordon Parks; Writer: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black (based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman); Director of Photography: Urs Furrer (Metrocolor); Music: Isaac Hayes; Film Editor: Hugh A. Robertson; Art Director: Emanuel Gerard; Set Decorator: Robert Drumheller; Costume Designer: Joe Aulisi.

Shaft 1971Gordon Parks’ ground-breaking crime thriller stars Richard Roundtree as Ernest Tidyman’s iconic tough black New York private detective, John Shaft.

Shaft is hired by Harlem crime lord, Bumpy Jonas, to locate and rescue his kidnapped daughter. Bumpy tells Shaft he suspects she has been abducted by black revolutionaries, led by Ben Buford, when really she has been snatched by the Mafia as part of a turf war. When Shaft realises he has been set-up by Bumpy to enlist Buford and his men he ups his price before linking up with Buford to plan a rescue.

It is easy today to underestimate the impact of SHAFT today when black action heroes are commonplace, but in 1971 Parks’ film was a revelation. From the opening shots of Roundtree’s Shaft strutting his way through Midtown Manhattan to the closing sequence of the daring rescue the film oozes style. With Isaac Hayes’ funky theme playing over the credits a movie icon was born.

The bleak New York winter of 1970/1 helped provide a gritty urban backdrop to Parks’ realisation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel. In his first starring role Roundtree has such an incredible charisma he instantly makes the role his own brilliantly sparring with the police and gangsters alike. Moses Gunn is also commanding as Bumpy Jonas (renamed from Knocks Persons in the novel as a nod to real life Harlem gangster of the ‘20s and ‘30s Bumpy Johnson). Charles Cioffi is the epitome of world-weariness in his portrayal of Lt. Vic Androzzi, whilst Ben Buford is portrayed by Christopher St. John, but is less imposing than the more intellectual version seen in the book.

The film has a slow pace by today’s frenetic standards, but is punctuated by occasional bursts of violent action. Parks’ lack of experience comes through with the aforementioned pacing problems. The editing could also be tighter in certain scenes – although the rescue finale is well-judged. However, his visual eye is evident throughout in the way he captures New York in social decay. The bare tenements and littered streets come sharply into focus against the harsh winter backdrop.

The film’s greatest achievement, though, was the legacy it created, enabling new talent to thrive in a Hollywood that hitherto had been a largely white domain.

Two sequels – SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! (1972) and SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973) and a series of seven TV-movies (1973-4) followed. John Singleton attempted to re-launch the franchise in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (also named John Shaft) and Roundtree reprising his role in little more than a cameo appearance.

Film Review – CROSSFIRE (1947)

CROSSFIRE (RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., USA, 86 mins, B&W, 1.37:1, Mono, Cert: PG, Crime Thriller) ∗∗∗
      Starring: Robert Young (Captain Finlay); Robert Mitchum (Sgt. Felix Keeley); Robert Ryan (Sgt. Montgomery); Gloria Grahame (Ginny Tremaine); Paul Kelly (The Man); Sam Levene (Joseph Samuels); Jacqueline White (Mary Mitchell); Steve Brodie (Floyd Bowers); George Cooper (Corp. Arthur Mitchell); Richard Benedict (Bill Williams); Richard Powers (Detective Dick); William Phipps (Leroy); Lex Barker (Harry); Marlo Dwyer (Miss Lewis).
      Producer: Adrian Scott; Director: Edward Dmytryk; Writer: John Paxton (Based on the novel “The Brick Foxhole” by Richard Brooks); Director of Photography: J. Roy Hunt; Music: Roy Webb; Film Editor: Harry Gerstad; Art Director: Albert S. D’Agostino, Alfred Herman; Set Decorator: Darrell Silvera, John Sturtevant.

Crossfire 1947Detective Finlay (Young) investigates a group of soldiers who are accused of beating a man to death without an apparent motive in this well-directed and acted film noir based on Brooks’ controversial novel of a homophobic motivated murder (here translated into a hatred of Jews rather than homosexuals).

Dmytryk (also responsible for Murder My Sweet in 1944) directs with a sure and efficient hand giving the story sufficient room to breathe whilst keeping the plot moving along. Ryan conveys a fine balance of calmness in the early scenes and a descent into desperation as the net closes. Mitchum is solid and confident in an early supporting role, whilst Young displays a world –weariness that would become a signature for the noir police detective. Hunt’s photography is first-rate with most scenes set at night and being low lit giving ample opportunity for contrast and shadow. Paxton’s adaptation provides good dialogue for the actors and generally steers clear of the genre’s more obvious traits. Grahame has some memorable screen time as the painted lady caught up in events.

Whilst this is not a classic, the film is one of the better examples of the atmosphere and tension the genre could create with a gifted director at the helm.

Both producer Scott and director Dmytryk were later accused of communist sympathies and became the first two members of the “Hollywood Ten” who were blacklisted and imprisoned – although Dmytryk was later reprieved.

Film Review – UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

UNDER THE SKIN (2013, Film 4 / British Film Institute, UK/USA/Switzerland, 108 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Dolby Digital, Cert: 15, Sci-Fi Thriller) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hádek, Roy Armstrong.
      Producer: Nick Wechsler, James Wilson; Director: Jonathan Glazer; Writer: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell (Based on the novel by Michel Faber); Director of Photography: Daniel Landin; Music: Mica Levi; Film Editor: Paul Watts; Production Designer: Chris Oddy; Art Director: Martin McNee, Emer O’Sullivan; Costume Designer: Steven Noble.

UnderTheSkinAn alien in the form of a voluptuous woman (Johansson) combs the highways of Scotland in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring a succession of lost souls into an otherworldly lair. There she seduces, strips and stores them in a dimensional trap. Then she takes pity on a deformed man, who she releases incurring the wrath of her male accomplice. She goes on the run and meets a drifter. Seemingly beginning to become aware of a soul within her human facade she becomes attracted to him. When she realises her alien biology precludes them from mating she escapes to a forest where further danger awaits.

To brand this film as unconventional would be an understatement. It is encouraging to see such challenging film-making in an era dominated by brainless blockbusters. The dense narrative, sparse dialogue and eerie soundtrack all serve to create an unsettling atmosphere. This is most notable in a scene on a beach where a toddler is left alone against the oncoming tide as his mother and father meet their fate whilst trying to rescue their dog, which has swum out to sea.

Johansson delivers an emotionally detached performance and yet still manages to create a seductive allure through her physicality. None of the human characters are given names but all the actors give credible and naturalistic performances. Watching the film makes the viewer feel voyeuristic rather than emotionally involved and as such its cold heart will alienate many. Despite the slow unfolding story I remained hooked until the rather disappointing conclusion, which left many of the interesting subtexts raised hanging in the air as if the filmmakers were merely asking the questions rather than sharing a viewpoint.

The end result, therefore, is an impressively technical film, but one without a soul.

Book Review – THE DEVIL’S EDGE (2011) by Stephen Booth

THE DEVIL’S EDGE by STEPHEN BOOTH (2011, Little, Brown Book Group / Sphere, Paperback, 440pp) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Blurb: A series of brutal home invasions is terrorizing the Peak District. Until now the burglars haven’t left a clue. This time they’ve left a corpse. But as the death toll rises, two intrepid cops begin to suspect that the robberies – and the murders – are not what they seem.

The Devil's Edge (Stephen Booth) 2011This is the eleventh book in Booth’s Cooper and Fry series, but the first one I have read. Booth obviously has story arcs running through the series to retain continuity and a loyal reader base, but it is not essential to have read earlier books in the series. However, those having done so may have been drawn more quickly into the story.

I found the first part of the book a little slow, with long passages describing the setting (the Peak Districts and the village of Riddings) and little progression in the investigation. There was some detail around DS Ben Cooper’s engagement to Liz, a member of the SOCO team. Also we follow his partner, DS Diane Fry, who is attending a course on Implementing Strategic Change and resisting the advances of a randy colleague.

Meanwhile one of Riddings’ rich residents has been hospitalised in the latest in a spate of home invasions. Local wisdom points to a gang known as The Savages. Cooper has other ideas and as the plot unfolds we meet a wide array of village characters who could have strayed from an Agatha Christie or Midsomer Murders story.

As the tale progresses we are also introduced to a new DC in Carol Villiers, who has served in the military police in Afghanistan. She gives a potential future romantic triangle with Cooper and Liz as we are made aware they are old school friends.

The story may lack the harder of edge of many modern mysteries, but is an entertaining, if unsurprising read and should please fans of old-school mystery writing. Booth stays within the confines of his well-defined setting and overcomes the familiarity of his characters with a sturdy plot, which is helped by some late twists.

Author’s website: www.stephen-booth.com

James Garner (1928 – 2014)

James Garner

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of James Garner (on 19 July 2014 aged 86). I grew up watching Garner’s charismatic and charming performance as private eye Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files (1974-80). Garner was one of those actors who got by on the mere presence of his personality – although he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in 1985’s Murphy’s Romance. He had been a regular on the big screen through the 1950s and 1960s with his best known credits including Darby’s Rangers (1958),The Great Escape (1963), Grand Prix (1966), Hour of the Gun (1967) and Marlowe (1969).

Despite this he will be best remembered for his small screen starring roles in Maverick(1957-62) and the aforementioned The Rockford Files. During the 1970s he would have increasing problems with his knees, requiring surgery on a number of occasions. Finally he had to quit The Rockford Files when the demands of filming became too much.

His later career saw him resurrect his signature roles of Bret Maverick in the TV seriesBret Maverick (1981-2) and the film Maverick (1994) as well as Jim Rockford in a series of eight TV movies between 1994 and 1999. He also starred in the TV mini-series Streets of Laredo (1995) taking on the role of Woodrow Call from Tommy Lee Jones who portrayed Call in 1989’s Lonesome Dove. In 2000 he appeared with Jones alongside Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland in Space Cowboys.

Garner’s self-deprecating humour is summed up in this quote about his performance as Bret Maverick: “I’m playing me. Bret Maverick is lazy: I’m lazy. And I like being lazy.”

An actor from an increasingly distant generation, the likeable Garner will be sadly missed, but his legacy lives on through his work, which is widely available on DVD.

Biography: The Garner Files: A Memoir by James Garner and Jon Winokur (2011, Simon & Schuster)
Web: The Official James Garner Fan Page

Film Review – SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977, Paramount Pictures, USA, 118 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Dolby Stereo, Cert: 18, Drama) ∗∗∗∗
      Starring: John Travolta (Tony Manero), Karen Lynn Gorney (Stephanie Mangano), Barry Miller (Bobby C.), Joseph Cali (Joey), Paul Pape (Double J.), Bruce Ornstein (Gus), Donna Pescow (Annette), Val Bisoglio (Frank Manero, Sr.), Julie Bovasso (Flo Manero), Martin Shakar (Frank Manero, Jr.), Nina Hansen (Grandmother), Lisa Peluso (Linda Manero), Sam J. Coppola (Dan Fusco), Lisa Peluso (Linda), Denny Dillon (Doreen), Bert Michaels (Pete).
      Producer: Robert Stigwood; Director: John Badham; Writer: Norman Wexler (based on the article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn); Director of Photography: Ralf D. Bode (Movielab); Music: Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb, David Shire; Film Editor: David Rawlins; Production Designer: Charles Bailey; Costume Designer: Patrizia Von Brandenstein.

Saturday Night FeverRobert Stigwood purchased the rights to a magazine article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn published in New York Magazine on 7 Jun 1976 and the resultant movie became a smash hit by tapping into the then current disco fever and through the magnetic performance of its new star, John Travolta. Cohn was initially involved in the screenplay before Wexler was brought in to produce the shooting script. Initially John Avildsen was to direct, but conceptual disagreements with producer Stigwood led to him being replaced by Badham.

Travolta plays Tony Manero, a 19 year-old Brooklyn resident in a dead-end job and with a family on struggling financially following his father being layed off from the construction company he worked for all his life. The family are much prouder of the elder son (Shakar) who has left and become a priest. In order to escape his family Travolta cruises the disco clubs with his pals and is a hot dancer admired by all around him – particularly the girls. He hooks up with another dancer he admires (Gorney) to enter a competition. In the meantime the gang get into trouble with another gang resulting in one of them being hospitalised. The junior member of the gang has got his girlfriend pregnant and is at a loss what to do. The story unfolds around these plot threads and shows Travolta’s transition from teenage boy to man.

The musical backdrop provided by The Bee Gees and other disco acts of the time gives the film an added energy, but it is Travolta who drives the story forward in a career making performance. His dancing is fluid and his acting impressively natural. He gets good support from a talented cast – notably Bisoglio and Bovasso as his bickering parents. Bode’s photography of the New York locations captures the economic problems the city had at the time and Badham convincingly captures the spirit of youngsters in the city.

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is a highly influential movie, but also is a period piece in that it captures its moment in time so well. An inferior sequel, STAYING ALIVE, followed in 1983.