It is no coincidence that Warner Brothers released on DVD their old "Shaft" from 1971 with Richard Roundtree in the title role at the same time they released in theaters their new "Shaft" with Samuel L. Jackson. One hand feeds the other, so to speak. I must admit I was never too keen on the old "Shaft" movies when they first came out, and time has not changed my disposition.
Based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman and directed by Gordon Parks, "Shaft" struck a favorable nerve with black and white audiences alike, the title character becoming one of moviedom's first important black series heroes. While I appreciate the film's intent, a little of the "Stay loose, baby; you dig, man?" super-cool, jazz-inflected talk and music go a long way, tire quickly, and date fast.
John Shaft is a private detective whose persona is too self-consciously hip, too with-it, to be entirely convincing, even for a fictional PI in the Hammett-Chandler tradition. What with Isaac Hayes's Academy Award-winning theme song continually playing in the background and Roundtree's constant hard-eyed, flinty glances, Shaft becomes more caricature than character. Well, I suppose his name alone should give that away. Anyhow, believable or not, Shaft spends the first twenty-five minutes of the film wondering why two guys with guns are following him. After throwing one of them out a window (and they're not on the ground floor), he finds out they were sent by a big-time hood named Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) who wants to talk to him. A telephone call would have been simpler.
It seems Bumpy's teenage daughter was kidnapped, and Bumpy wants Shaft to rescue her. This leads the detective to more black gangsters, white gangsters, the Mafia, multiple killings, fights, and gratuitous sex. Don't even ask. Shaft's personal life and outlook are endlessly at odds. First, he makes love with a beautiful black lady whom he appears to care for a lot; then he picks up a white girl in a bar, a total stranger, and spends the night with her.
Some of his black friends think he's an Uncle Tom because he has white friends, like police Lt. Androzzy (Charles Cioffi); and some of his white friends think he's a militant because of his contentious attitude. Go figure. The film appears to be trying to please everyone.
The best part of the movie comes in its final few minutes, a daring rescue that goes off with split-second timing and is, in fact, a good deal of fun to watch. But it's a very brief episode in a film that is otherwise rather flat. To maintain the hip coolness of the story, everybody speaks in slow, deliberate tones, with clever, biting rejoinders the order of the day. There's a lot of filler, too, as Shaft is shown walking here, driving there, questioning people, and looking tough but not actually doing much. The film was shot mostly in and around New York City, providing the story with a realistically gritty appearance.
Warner Brothers present the picture in two screen sizes, standard and wide, on flip sides of a double-sided disc. The standard, full-frame ratio is actually the better bet. It affords about the same left-to-right image but a whole lot more top-to-bottom material. Apparently, the theatrical widescreen, here rendered in an approximate 1.77:1 ratio, was matted from the original 1.37:1 film stock; I'd go with the latter. The quality of the print is about the same in either case, the picture shining brightly, the colors vivid, the delineation reasonably well defined. However, there is also a degree of roughness in the overall appearance, some grain to put up with, and some very brief and occasional flashes of horizontal pastel bars evident when played through component video jacks.
The Dolby Digital monaural sound is oddly constricted and nasal on voices, with not much in the way of frequency range or dynamics.
As small compensation, Warner offer an eleven-minute documentary, "Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location," a cast and crew listing, twenty scene selections, and three theatrical trailers.
For those viewers who can't get enough of "Shaft," Warner have also issued its two sequels on DVD, "Shaft's Big Score" and "Shaft in Africa." Of the two, "Shaft's Big Score" offers the most plausible and exciting alternative.