42 St. 42 Years Ago: SHAFT Revisited

30 Aug

Today, August 30, 2013, is the 42nd anniversary of my first trip to a 42nd Street movie theater (on August 30, 1971). I’ve amassed quite a bit of material related to that trip, so it seemed like a good opportunity to commemorate it. I’ve managed to re-watch both films seen on that trip and I’ve been in touch with both friends who accompanied me that day. The film that drew us was SHAFT, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as a black private eye with an office in Times Square, an apartment in Greenwich Village, and a client in Harlem, locations that marked three of the major centers of street life in New York in the early 1970s. The second feature chosen to play with it was, oddly enough, a low-budget black-and-white science fiction film made in 1956 called IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, a title that had already played on television regularly by this point. The film was directed by Roger Corman and the stars were Peter Graves, Beverly Garland and Lee Van Cleef. I suspect it was Van Cleef’s presence in the cast that gave it some cachet, since Van Cleef had become popular among 42nd Street audiences thanks to the steady stream of Italian westerns he’d made after reviving his career with appearances in two of the movies making up Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Van Cleef’s name was prominently displayed on the theater marquee as this shot from the time shows:

The theater was the Lyric, situated in the middle of a row of six theaters on the north side of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, the famous “Deuce” of New York legend. SHAFT had opened in New York on July 2 at the DeMille Theater on Broadway and 47th Street, but I don’t know at what point in its run it started playing at the Lyric. The marquee in that picture says “Held Over 4th Big Week,” but I couldn’t say whether that was in July, August or September.

The other theaters sharing that side of the street with the Lyric were the Rialto and Victory theaters east of it, and the Times Square, Apollo and Selwyn theaters west of it.

On the opposite side of the street were the New Amsterdam,  Harris, Liberty, Empire and Anco theaters.

All of these theaters were lower-priced than the more stately movie palaces that lined Broadway from 43rd Street to 50th Street and denizens of the outer boroughs would regularly traipse to 42nd Street to save money and see a second feature, since the Deuce theaters always showed double (and sometimes triple) bills. The admission price at the De Mille would have been about $2.50 at the time. I don’t remember the exact price we paid to see SHAFT, but I’m guessing it was $1.25.

SHAFT followed on the success of COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, a comedy-thriller from 1970 about two Harlem detectives that paved the way for the start of the Blaxploitation era, which truly began, in my assessment, with SHAFT, which provided the model for numerous subsequent black action thrillers, including TROUBLE MAN, BLACK GUNN, HAMMER, HIT MAN, BLACK CAESAR, and two SHAFT sequels. Some critics cite Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG, which opened two months earlier than SHAFT, as the first true Blaxploitation movie, but if Van Peebles’ more stylized approach, with its emphasis on allegory and symbolism, had any influence on subsequent black-themed action films, I didn’t notice it.

I watched SHAFT again a few months ago for my “Songs in Movies: 1967-73” post of April 2, 2013 and then I watched it again this week. It’s a film I’ve gone back to several times since originally seeing it. It offers a pretty simple crime story: Private eye John Shaft is hired to find a Harlem crime boss’s kidnapped daughter, so he recruits a group of earnest militants from Harlem to help him locate the mob hideout where she’s being held and raid the place to rescue her. The action climax is suspenseful, but never as exciting as it ought to be. In later action movies, such a scene would be reserved for the middle of the film and something more spectacular would be staged as a finale. Still, the film’s strength lies in the way Shaft, a swaggering young black man, full of attitude and preening self-confidence, negotiates the different worlds he has to travel through (in the best tradition of the private eye, as exemplified by Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP, 1946). He is cocky towards the Harlem crime lord, Bumpy Jonas, and his men; the mafia goons he has to deal with; and the police officials who question him about various killings. It was pretty much the first time audiences got to see a black man in a Hollywood film be this aggressive and talk back that way and come out practically unscathed at the end. For much of the black audience, it was not just a breath of fresh air—in the era of “super negro” Sidney Poitier–but a liberating experience. And, of course, it led to a steady stream of two-fisted, quick-triggered black protagonists in relatively low-budgeted films over the next two years, before the cycle began to fade out thanks to a glut of mediocre entries.

SHAFT remains notable for its snapshots of Manhattan in an era of racial and social turbulence. Times Square was getting seedier every year, Greenwich Village was still Bohemian, and Harlem was the most populous black community in the nation, poverty-stricken and suffering from “benign neglect,” but home to a swirl of activist social and revolutionary movements. White people were not buying brownstones there. Condos were not being built in the Village. And tourists were scared to go to Times Square. I worked as a messenger in Times Square in 1969-70 and went to high school in the area from 1968-71 and I can attest that Times Square looked, felt and smelled the way it did in the film. As someone who finds little reason to visit the tourist-friendly Times Square of today, I miss those days.

I used to eat in the hot dog stand in this picture. It was on the same block as the DeMille Theater. I remember, as a 15-year-old, having to walk through a gauntlet of hookers to get inside. One of them turned to ask me, “You wanna go out?” I nervously shook my head and said no. And then stood inside with apprehension eating my hot dog worrying about exiting past them when a cop car pulled up and the girls all ran up 47th Street, their high heels clattering on the sidewalk.

The Harlem sequence in SHAFT featured a cameo appearance by the film’s director, Gordon Parks:

The opening shots of SHAFT include a long lens pan shot down 42nd Street that features four different marquees: the Times Square, the Victory, the Rialto, and none other than the Lyric, the theater I was sitting in when I saw the film. (The Lyric marquee features LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY and BARBARELLA.)

In the sequence, Shaft comes out of the subway station at 42nd Street and 7th Avenue and makes his way, by a circuitous route enabling all kinds of colorful backdrops and encounters, to a shoeshine stand…on 42nd Street, less than a block from the subway exit! He then heads to his office on 46th Street.

Earlier in 1971, as I was making my rounds in Times Square as a messenger, I’d witnessed the filming of a stunt for SHAFT, in which a man comes flying out of a window onto 49th Street, near Broadway. The stuntman, Tommy Lane, was also the actor who played the part, a thug named Leroy working for Bumpy Jonas. In the scene in the film, he fights Shaft in his office, having been sent there to bring him up to Jonas, and, in one of those maneuvers that can only happen in a movie, he lunges at Shaft and misses, going through a breakaway window and falling into the street below. (It was only about two stories up, so an actual fall like that wouldn’t have killed him.) The New York Times printed a picture of that stunt in motion on January 24, 2007, as part of a feature on Times Square in the movies.

And here’s how the stunt looked in the movie:

I remember going up to a TV newsman who was covering the scene and, after the stunt was filmed, asking him what film it was. He turned his back on me and took his clipboard and smacked his back with it, as if I were a fly to be swatted away. I trust he closed out his career doing ads for used car dealers in Long Island. The next day, the New York Post ran a small item on the stunt and I learned what film it was.

Interestingly, the lead-up to the stunt featured a couple of locations familiar to me from my school days.  First, my high school, the High School of Performing Arts (the “Fame” school) at 120 W. 46 Street, is seen in the background as Shaft walks to his office. It’s the brown stone building just right of the “Park” sign.

The lobby of his office building (126 W. 46 St.) has a news and candy stand run by a gentle and friendly fellow named Louie who we used to buy candy and gum from on a daily basis. Louie and his newsstand are featured in the scene exactly as they appeared in real life. In the scene, Shaft has snuck up on Leroy and overpowered him before taking him up to his office.

The shot at the beginning of the piece with the  Lyric Theater marquee announcing this double bill is from an episode of the TV crime show, “McCloud,” entitled “Top of the World, Ma!” (itself a reference to the great crime movie, WHITE HEAT, which used to play 42nd Street regularly in the 1950s). The scene involves Bo Svenson, wounded after a violent confrontation, wandering the Deuce in a daze. The scene comes right at the beginning of the episode and is a flash-forward to a scene later in the show. Yet we get a better shot of the marquee in the opening than later in the show.

The episode aired on Nov. 3, 1971, which means it was shot only about two or three months before it aired. (How I learned about this episode: On the Mobius Home Video Forum, a member named Robert Richardson described the above scene and the marquee titles on the Lyric and asked if the location was indeed New York’s famed 42nd Street. My response post affirmed it and remarked on the amazing coincidence of that marquee representing my first trip to 42nd Street. Richardson very kindly made me a VHS copy of the episode.)

The Lyric Theater can be seen in other shots I’ve acquired from different sources, some of which I used above. Here’s one from 1953, when it showed two westerns from the 1940s: ALONG CAME JONES (billed on the marquee as ALONG CAME KILLER JONES), with Gary Cooper, and the Randolph Scott/Gypsy Rose Lee musical western, BELLE OF THE YUKON:

This is a shot I took from the shoot for LAST ACTION HERO (1993), when the Deuce marquees were tricked up with fake marquee titles:

And here’s that stretch of 42nd Street as it looks today:

The Foxwoods Theater is situated where the Lyric used to be.

Now, for a word about IT CONQUERED THE WORLD. First, let’s go back to that day, August 30. When my friends and I entered the theater, it was right at the end of SHAFT. We heard the final line, “Close it yourself—Shitty,” followed by Shaft’s raucous laugh, which elicited a big laugh from the packed house as the end credits began rolling. In order to get the joke, we had to sit through IT CONQUERED THE WORLD. At the time, I have to confess that even though I was familiar with Roger Corman’s more recent films, including the Poe cycle, and had seen X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES and THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE in theaters, I had not seen many of his low-budget black-and-white thrillers from the 1950s, nor had I read much about them. In short, I wasn’t in a position to appreciate this film when I saw it. Nor did my friends—or much of the audience. And yet, after sitting through it and then watching SHAFT, we decided to stay through the whole double feature a second time—because we wanted to see SHAFT again!

In any event, when I caught IT CONQUERED THE WORLD again on TV less than a year later, I was quite taken with it and better able to recognize Corman’s low-budget ingenuity. I needed to see it again for this piece and was pleased to learn that it was to play at the Film Forum as part of their Summer Festival of Fantasy, Horror & Science Fiction on Wed. August 21, a little over a week ago, so I went to see it then.

It holds up well. Its tale of an alien invasion carried out by taking over the minds and souls of various local officials echoed a number of similar sci-fi films from the 1950s, including INVADERS FROM MARS, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE and the somewhat higher-budgeted INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, but managed to make it dramatically compelling with a minimum of special effects. The main conflict is between Tom Anderson (Van Cleef), a scientist in radio contact with a visiting intelligence from Venus and eager to do its bidding in the hope that it could benefit humanity, and his wife, Claire (Garland), who continues to try to appeal to his conscience, and his friend and colleague Paul Nelson (Graves), whose skepticism turns to contempt once he sees the lethal handiwork of the alien intelligence. Eventually, it all culminates in a rather unconvincing “battle” with the monster, holed up in a cave in Bronson Canyon (an oft-used location that’s a stone’s throw from Hollywood), a carrot-shaped fiend with lobster claws that is confronted first by Claire and then by a group of soldiers, with last-minute assistance from Anderson. Up until then, however, the human drama is engrossing, with Van Cleef’s characteristic intensity serving his misguided character quite well and Garland taking a meaty role and making the most of it as a loyal and devoted wife who refuses to give up on her husband to the end. Graves is his usual earnest, straight-arrow self and he puts up a plausible resistance to the alien attempts to possess him.

Lee Van Cleef in the film (in an image taken with a digital camera off the Film Forum screen):

And in a more common Times Square favorite, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY:

I didn’t make any more trips to 42nd Street during the 1970s, chiefly because my neighborhood theaters offered much of the same fare. (I saw both Shaft sequels on double features in my neighborhood.) I went to 42nd Street theaters more often in the 1980s, when my office was closer to Times Square.

Finally, here’s a shot from 1971 of me and the two friends who accompanied me to the Lyric Theater that day, Tommy Chin and Vaughan Edwards, as we walked down Fifth Avenue on a picture-taking trip later that year, after it had gotten a little colder.

Both went into long careers in law enforcement. Me? I kept going to the movies.

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3 Responses to “42 St. 42 Years Ago: SHAFT Revisited”

  1. Robert Regan August 30, 2013 at 11:34 AM #

    Great piece of film history, Brian!

  2. mozenator August 30, 2013 at 8:10 PM #

    that last pic is fantastic, Brian! You look so cool! Actually looks like a film still…I want to see more of you circa this era! Great article and as the poster above says piece of film history. Thank you for this!

    • briandanacamp September 10, 2013 at 7:27 AM #

      Hey, we ALL looked cool in the ’70s! ;D

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