Graphic Novel Review – SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE (2017) by David F. Walker/Dietrich Smith

SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE by DAVID F. WALKER/DIETRICH SMITH (2017, Dynamite, 104pp) ∗∗∗∗

Blurb: After a high-profile case puts him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight, out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he’s ever had. But when there’s danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out – even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.

The trade paperback publication of this four-part comic book arrives a year after similar treatement for Shaft: A Complicated Man.  David F. Walker returns as writer and is partnered with Dietrich Smith as artist. The book demonstrates the confidence Walker took from his critically acclaimed debut as the literary heir to Ernest Tidyman’s creation. The story stretches itself around social issues of a decaying New York and the expoitation of young gays through pornography. Walker also finds time to seemingly take a satirical swipe at some of the excesses of Blaxploitation cinema, by having Shaft work as a consultant on a film based on his own exploits, only here exaggerated to comical effect. In reality, however, this is a dig at the makers of the proposed new Shaft movie, which is reported to have a comedic slant. Smith’s artwork is more bold and colourful than the more sensitive tones applied by Bilquis Evely. His work is very effective and at times sublime – notably in the use of light and shade at the start of Part 3, where Shaft is interviewed by detectives in his office. Ultimately, whilst the story lacks the dramatic and emotional bite of Walker’s debut, it is an entertaining read lifting the lid on the sleazier aspects of early 1970s New York. Unlike the TP publication of Shaft: A Complicated Man, this book comes without any extras, such as an introduction, script extracts and character profiles, which is a shame. It is also a shame that Dynamite seem to have stalled on any new Shaft output – with as yet no commissioned third comic book or follow-up novel to Walker’s excellent Shaft’s Revenge.  There is also no news of the continuation of the reprints of Tidyman’s originals. I hope the publisher has not lost interest in the series and that we see more Shaft output very soon.

Director assigned to Shaft reboot

Image result
Tim Story, director of the Shaft reboot..

After over a year of seeming inactivity, there is finally some forward momentum on New Line’s reboot of the Shaft franchise. Tim Story has been assigned as director to the production, which will be based on a script by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow.  Barris is also co-producer with John Davis and Ira Napoliello for Davis Entertainment. As well as directing two Fantastic Four movies, Story has had recent success as a director of comedies including Ride Along 2 and Kevin Hart: What Now? – adding fuel to the fire that this Shaft may be less than faithful to Ernest Tidyman’s creation.

Mike Fleming Jr., writing for Deadline , reports on rumours that the plot may centre on Shaft’s son – thereby taking a similar track to 2000’s Shaft, where Samuel L Jackson played the private detective’s nephew. He says: “I’ve heard the idea is to reinvigorate the franchise with a focus on the son of the cool private eye who always finds himself navigating the gray terrain between the law and organized crime in New York City.”

Book Review – HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) by Ernest Tidyman

hpd-paperbackHIGH PLAINS DRIFTER by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1973, Corgi, 150pp) ∗∗∗

Blurb: They whipped the last sheriff to death in the middle of the Main Street. Now a year of breaking rocks had made them hungry for revenge on the whole town. But first they had to deal with the stranger, a man with a lot of lean lightning on his hip – and a gut-urge to use it!

In the 1960s and 70s, before the advent of home video, paperback novelisations were the only way you could revisit a movie without waiting 5 years for a TV premiere or a re-release. They pretty much faded away once movies became readily available, firstly through the rental market and ultimately through retail. Tidyman’s High Plains Drifter is a solid example of how a novelisation could flesh out a screenplay, but could not always recapture the elements that made a movie special.

The novelisation of Tidyman’s screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Western was published in May 1973 – a month after the release of the film. Tidyman had written the original screenplay during the early summer of 1972 and assigned Phillip Rock (uncredited here) to adapt the screenplay into a novel manuscript, which Tidyman would then edit. The book, therefore stays very close to Tidyman’s original draft. Eastwood saw the opportunity to add some mystical elements – suggesting the stranger was a re-incarnation of the murdered town marshal. Dean Reisner had been hired to add these elements into a final draft screenplay – although Tidyman retained sole credit on screen following a WGA ruling. It is these additional elements and Eastwood’s persona that made the film stand out from other westerns. The novel is, therefore, a much more straight forward tale. Most of the elements of Tidyman’s screenplay were used in the final version of the film, but in the novel there is no real suggestion of a link between the stranger and the marshal. The reader is left to ponder on the stranger’s motives. As a result, the novel – though well written and never less than engaging – does not stand out from the crowd in the same way as the movie.

Note: Phillip Rock wrote the novelisation of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in 1971.

 

Book Review – BIG BUCKS: THE TRUE, OUTRAGEOUS STORY OF THE PLYMOUTH MAIL ROBBERY AND HOW THEY GOT AWAY WITH IT (1982) by Ernest Tidyman

BIG BUCKSTHE TRUE, OUTRAGEOUS STORY OF THE PLYMOUTH MAIL ROBBERY AND HOW THEY GOT AWAY WITH IT  by ERNEST TIDYMAN (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982, 317pp) ∗∗∗∗

Blurb: The71csp9i345ly came out of the mist on a Cape Cod highway one rainy August evening to write a chapter in the history of spectacular American crimes. They stole more money – over $1.5 million in cash – than anyone had ever stolen. Although three suspects went to trial for the robbery, the charges were dismissed, and the case of the Plymouth Mail Robbery has never been solved.

Tidyman’s telling of the Plymouth Mail Robbery is the book equivalent of the docu-drama. The result is a fascinating and in-depth realisation of the masterminding of one of the greatest heists ever. Tidyman largely presents the story as if it were a novel and this gives depth to the main protagonists on both sides of the law. The gang’s ring leader – here given the name Dan Murphy – is presented as a meticulous organiser of criminal activity. He works with a small group he trusts, which keeps his plans tight. he evades the law through his ingenuity right to the end. The book would have made for a great film adaptation – and indeed the author had prepared a screenplay co-written with his wife, Chris Clark-Tidyman in 1983 – but the story is yet to be filmed. This was to be Tidyman’s final book – he died two years later.

Book Review – FLOWER POWER (1968) by Ernest Tidyman

front-cover-scan-jpeg-2FLOWER POWER by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1968, The Paperback Library, 160pp) ∗∗∗

Blurb: Phyllis Greenfield was sweet sixteen – and never been stoned. Life was passing her by. So she ran away from her comfortable home in Cleveland, Ohio, and went to Haight-Ashbury to make the Underground Scene. There she met Furman, a young Black acid-head who wanted to be a FBI agent – or at least a member of the Hell’s Angels. Furman rechristened her “Flower” and brought her to his crash pad where she settled down to making the protest rallies with Me, a mystic love-child who took her to a swinging guru. And Signal, who caught special vibrations by making sex a mixed-media happening. And Tripper, who convinced her that LSD was the only ticket to visiting Inner Space. Flower was grooving in the switched-on life until one day the straight and the hippie worlds clashed in a battle that taught her the true meaning of FLOWER POWER!

Ernest Tidyman’s debut novel was published six months before he signed a contract with Macmillan to write Shaft. At the time, Tidyman was working as a freelance writer and magazine editor. He wanted to write a novel that would connect with the fashion of the time and so he came up with this story of a young girl exploring free-spirited communal living in the hippy culture of San Francisco.

Tidyman invests time in his characters and adds touches of humour throughout, but the story is slight at best. The book was very much of its time and many of the situations and characters will seem stereotypical today – the experimentation with drugs and sex; the Indian karma influences; the garden of home grown marijuana and the open-house approach to living. The first half of the book concentrates on Phyllis and her transformation to Flower whilst living with her small group of new friends. Once this is established the book opens up to bring in a wider group of characters including a motorbike gang, FBI agents and corrupt cops. The whole thing culminates at a party hosted by Flower and her friends where all these elements collide in true crazy sixties fashion.

Tidyman prefers an observational approach to his writing here, without getting too deeply engrossed in the politics of what these youngsters are about. indeed they all seem lost in one way or another and none of them really find their answers – they merely move on to the next adventure. Whilst this may be an accurate portrayal of the hippy movement in its free-spirited mentality of living for the now – it leaves the book’s character stories incomplete. Like the characters, the reader is left to feel they have spent time in a strange new world but then simply moved on feeling unfulfilled.

Book Review – DUMMY (1974) by Ernest Tidyman

dumy-wh-allenDUMMY by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1974, W.H. Allen, 210pp) ∗∗∗∗

Blurb: First there was Ernestine Williams, a prostitute found murdered in a Chicago alleyway on November 12, 1965. She had last been seen leaving a bar with a young black mute. Donald Lang, “The Dummy” was arrested. It was the beginning of one of the most bizarre murder cases in American History. From Chicago’s South Side Donald Lang was twenty years old, poor, black, totally illiterate – and deaf and dumb. He could not talk, write, read lips, or understand sign language. It was an unprecedented legal problem: How could the accused defend himself when he could not even communicate? In bewilderment the court appointed the only man who might be able to defend the boy – a tough, determined, resourceful lawyer named Lowell Myers. Myers was also deaf. Dummy is a story of the legal process as an enormous “Catch 22”, a nightmare that ends only to begin when Lang is implicated in a second murder.

Ernest Tidyman uses all his journalistic skills in the telling of the story of Donald Lang – the deaf, dumb and illiterate young black man who was subject of two murder charges during the mid-late 1960s. Tidyman deftly works his way through the court transcripts to highlight the key components on the case focusing on Lang’s predicament and treatment and the efforts of his deaf attorney – Lowell J. Myers. Tidyman offers no opinion on Lang, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves as the story unfolds. He allows opinions from some of the key people working on the case – but only once the story is complete – via interviews with the detectives and prosecutors, This means the reader has the opportunity to form their own views as the story unfolds. Tidyman’s voice comes through in some of the early passages where he sets the scene and introduces us to Lang and Myers before the courtroom battles commence.

Tidyman was in heavy demand at the time of writing this book following his Oscar win for The French Connection and his ongoing work on the Shaft books and films. Like many of his books, Dummy started out life as a screenplay as early as 1971. Tidyman would eventually complete the project as a well-received TV Movie in 1979. For the book he enlisted the research help of fellow journalist Dorothy Storek, of the Chicago Daily News, and manuscript support of regular collaborator Phillip Rock.

Dummy then is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in legal history or the rights of the handicapped to be fairly represented in court. It is also a book that doesn’t get bogged down in legal talk and is also accessible to the general reader.

Book Review – ABSOLUTE ZERO (1971) by Ernest Tidyman

absolute-zeroABSOLUTE ZERO by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1971, The Dial Press, 182pp) ∗∗∗

Blurb: Adam True Blessing’s father was a financial genius; in the words of Bernard Baruch, “thirty-five inches of raw courage the day of the Crash.” Adam’s mother was even shorter. Together they gave their normal-sized son a human maximum of love, moral upbringing, and education, until one day in 1942 when they went out for a walk and a blizzard dropped forty inches of snow before they could return home. That was how Adam found them, so perhaps it was not so surprising that he should make his career in cryogenics – the preservation of human organs and body parts by deep freezing. More difficult to understand was why he should hire such an assortment of physically luckless souls to assist him in his clandestine enterprise – like Mirella Tookins, his 800-pound receptionist, who had to be levered out of a specially rigged Volkswagen bus every morning; or Omsby Drew, a wizard with numbers and a menace on sidewalks or elevators, navigating with his bludgeon of a cane; or Flo Cramby, with her unique affliction, known to medical science as Cramby’s Vertical Minute Hemorrhage, a mini-stroke every few seconds as long as she remained standing. Altogether, Mr. Blessing and his operation – HOPE, INC. (offices in five world capitals and Teterboro, New Jersey) – seem made for suspicion. As Federal authorities, and eventually Federal justice, move in, events veer to a wild and unpredictable confrontation. Along the way, the reader is treated to a marvellously deft play of satirical humour and growing awareness of the significance of the legend of Adam True Blessing and the strange shores of humanity.

Tidyman’s novel demonstrates the writer’s determination not to be tagged in one genre as he looked to find his feet as a novelist following the success of SHAFT. His first novel, FLOWER POWER, had been a trendy story of hippies and this, his third, is a satirical piece of science-fiction. Tidyman’s journalistic instinct leads him to long descriptive passages and deep character insight. The prose is witty and the story veers more toward the absurd rather than the cutting sci-fi satire that was perhaps intended. However, there were many passages that made me smile. Each chapter is opened with a quote from one of the characters involved in the story and the one used for the very first chapter sets the tone nicely:

“The scientific community of this nation owes Mr. Blessing a great debt. On the other hand, he owes the scientific community several hundred thousand dollars.” – Prof. Malcolm Iago, Transcript of Testimony, U.S. vs. Blessing. Tenth District Court of New York.

The characters are all given their own space, but the actual plot shows little development outside of the uncovering of Blessing’s work and the following trial. The book therefore works better as a darkly manic comedy about its assortment of bizarre characters. There’s even a hint of Groucho Marx in the character of attorney, Imre Toth, and the chaos of the closing court scenes.

The book was published the same month the film adaptation of Shaft became a huge success and before he received his Academy Award for the script to The French Connection. Tidyman would move into the world of film scripting and production and largely away from original novels – excepting the continuation of the SHAFT series and novelisations of his own unfilmed screenplays. He would also attempt to adapt ABSOLUTE ZERO for the big screen with Peter Sellers starring, but the project fell through. It’s a shame as Sellers’ anarchic humour would have been perfect for the material.

 

Film Review – SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! (1972)

Image result for Shaft's Big score 1972Shaft’s Big Score! (1972; USA; Metrocolor; 105m) ∗∗∗½  d. Gordon Parks; w. Ernest Tidyman; ph. Urs Furrer; m. Gordon Parks.  Cast: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Drew Bundini Brown, Joseph Mascolo, Kathy Imrie, Wally Taylor, Julius W. Harris, Rosalind Miles, Joe Santos, Angelo Nazzo, Don Blakely, Melvin Green Jr., Thomas Anderson, Evelyn Davis, Richard Pittman. Shaft investigates the murder of a friend and gets mixed up in a feud between gangsters. Follow-up to SHAFT benefits from a higher budget, which is notably apparent in the protracted chase finale where Roundtree is pursued by villains by car, boat and helicopter. This set-piece is the highlight of a movie that comes close to matching the original. Most of the same crew returned and the snow-filled winter streets provide some excellent photographic scenes for Parks and his cinematographer Furrer. Roundtree is the epitome of cool as Shaft, whilst Mascolo makes the most of his role as a Mafia boss with a sense of style. Followed by SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973). [15]

Book Review – TABLE STAKES (1978) by Ernest Tidyman

Table StakesTABLE STAKES by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1978, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 348pp) ∗∗∗½

Blurb: David Burnham, a poker player of the old breed, crisscrosses the country with thousands of dollars in a battered briefcase, hitting the Big Game with Broadway producers, Texas oil millionaires, Hollywood moguls and the captains of Detroit. His lifestyle forces his wife to walk out on him with their son, Paul. The boy grows up admiring and envying his father from a distance and, eventually, emulating the legendary father in his own arena: rising from the cutting room floor to executive suite of a reviving film company. But, at the top, married to his boss’ beautiful daughter and contemplating a corporation takeover, Paul re-examines the parental code that has guided his life this far and determines for himself the price of winning and losing.

Table Stakes was Ernest Tidyman’s last novel (the factual Big Bucks being his last published work in 1982) and his most personal creative work in print, if not necessarily his best. Tidyman himself was an avid gambler and had also worked in film production since the early 1970s. Much of his knowledge of both is evident in the way he pieces together this moral drama. Tidyman gives all the main characters their own voice and allows them to breathe and as a result they feel real. Most of his characters are deeply flawed and selfish and the central father and son characters demonstrate this vividly despite their individual ideals.

The novel is split into two books. the first, titled Desperado, deals with father, David Burnham, and his inability to break away from the gambling table to take a respectable job as well as devote time to his wife and son. He is successful at what he does and sees no reason to change his lifestyle. His loyalty to his gambling partners outweighs that to his family. Whilst he plays an honest and honourable game he finally loses his wife and son when he is drawn into one final Big Game. Later tragedy strikes and we move on a generation to the second book entitled Scenario. 

Scenario represents the final two-thirds of the novel and concentrates on son Paul who has returned injured from Vietnam. Paul looks to establish a new life for himself. An old friend of his father’s – Junior Gordon, owner of Gordon Film Studios – gives him a job as production coordinator in a bid to provide his friend’s son with an income, if little responsibility. When Paul teams up with Gordon’s own son – Bernard, who has self-destructive tendencies mirroring those of Keith Moon – and the pair produce a screenplay resulting in a successful movie, Paul’s star is on the rise. He at first seems loyal to his new girlfriend, but succumbs to the temptations offered to the rich and powerful and ultimately weds Junior Gordon’s daughter – the beautiful but vacuous Melody.

All this begins to play like a soap opera on the scale that would later be served up on TV by Dallas or Dynasty and there is plenty of sexual activity to add spice to the story. But there is also depth to the moral messages Tidyman gets across on the themes of power, ambition, family and trust. The latter plays very heavily in the novel’s final act in which Paul is torn between making the right decision for the business and his loyalty to his father-in-law. In the end it is evident that there can be no long-term winners and this is ultimately Tidyman’s comment on gambling and the film industry in general. Ultimately his message is either your luck will run out or you will alienate those closest to you in your pursuit of success. He sees success as a self-feeding beast driven by ambition and greed that can only ultimately leave you feeling manipulated and totally alone. A depressing message, but one seeming to come from first-hand experience.