Shaft (1971)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn
Extras: Documentary, Trailers, Biographies

"Shaft" is one of the few action thrillers that managed to capture fans of traditional thrillers and those of urban films at the same time. The film walks a thin line and succeeds in taking viewers on ride into New York’s Harlem, where the life is a little tougher than elsewhere, and where people don’t take "No" for an answer. Warner Home Video has now released all three films in the "Shaft" series on DVD, just in time with the theatrical start of the new "Shaft" movie. Incidentally main actor Richard Roundtree can also be seen in this new incarnation of the film, in which Samual L. Jackson plays the titular hero, in a supporting role in homage to his original portrayal of the tough private eye. Many fans of the films have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of these films on DVD, so let’s take a look at what Warner home Video is serving up here.

John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a tough-as-nails private detective in New York City. When returning to his office on day, Shaft learns through his informants that two armed men had been looking for him – obviously runners of a local mobster. Carefully he approaches the office, only to find the men there and a fight ensues that sends one of the men though the office window. It turns out that crime lord Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) wanted to talk to Shaft and since his men were unsuccessful to bring Shaft in, Bumpy has to make his way to see the private eye himself. Bumpy has a job for Shaft. His only daughter has been kidnapped and Bumpy asks Shaft to find and retrieve the girl. Hesitantly he agrees and soon finds himself in the middle of a street war. Not only did Bumpy hire him to recover his daughter, he also made Shaft the target of the Mafia, who took Bumpy’s daughter as a token in a conflict between the two factions.

Outraged, Shaft confronts Bumpy but since he gave his word to rescue the girl, he can’t turn back. Shaft teams up with the Black Panthers, a group of underground rebels, and decides to make sure the Italian mobsters understand that there is no room for their games in Harlem.

Much of the appeal of the film comes from Richard Roundtree’s portrayal of Shaft. The character is tough and smart, yet at the same time he is vulnerable and smooth. A bit like a black James Bond, Shaft always has the right things to say and a beautiful girl not too far out of reach. A direct comparison with the Bond character can never be drawn however, as shaft’s urban setting is entirely different from the exotic locations we get to see in the Bond movies and the fact that Shaft’s ambitions and actions are firmly rooted in reality, working on a much smaller scale. That however makes the character much more tangible, giving him a personable quality.

"Shaft" is beautifully photographed and staged. The atmospheric camera work captures the streets of New York, always keeping the look of the film harsh and cold. The color scheme is typical 70’s muted with acidic contrasts, but at the same time uses a number of blue tinges, especially in the outdoors, to suggest the cold environment the people are facing.

Warner Home Video presents "Shaft" in its original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD, as well as an <$OpenMatte,open matte> transfer that adds some picture information at the top and the bottom of the screen. The <$PS,widescreen> transfer is realized as an <$16x9,anamorphic> presentation. Although the transfer is noticeably more detailed than the <$PS,fullframe> presentation due to the increase in resolution of the <$16x9,anamorphic> mode, the transfer appears soft and a bit washed out and grain is clearly evident in many shots. Much of it has undoubtedly to do with the technical and budgetary limitations of the production itself. Nonetheless, the presentation is pleasing and colors are generally stable. Blacks are solid and deep while the film’s highlights build a stark contrast. The film often uses a muted color scheme and also utilizes a lot of blue tones to stress the cold, subdued urban atmosphere of the settings. All of that is nicely reproduced and the DVD restores these nuances tastefully, capturing the original visual intent of the film. The compression is generally good and without distracting artifacts, although some of the shots that exhibit noise do show slight signs of <$pixelation,pixelation>.

The DVD comes with the film’s original monaural audio track and sadly this is where the strongest weakness of the release can be found. The thing you will immediately notice when listening to the audio track is the sonic limitations of the audio. With a narrow frequency response, the track contains virtually no bass information and the sharp high ends create a harsh-sounding audio track that is full of sibilance. The quality of the audio track is also very inconsistent. Sometimes free of background noise, at other times a distracting hiss is audible over dialogues. The track contains a lot of ADR produced dialogue elements – interestingly mostly by Shaft actor Richard Roundtree – which can become quite distracting at times due to their completely different sonic qualities and frequency response. It almost appears as if completely different sound elements were used for Roundtree than for the rest of the movie. At time, the dialogues are heavily gate, resulting in an audible cut-off of ambient sound effects.

Sadly these deficiencies also affect Isaac Hayes’ Academy Award-winning music to the film. Harsh and sometimes distorted, the music also shows no signs of bass information, giving it a flat and hash quality. I found it interesting however, that over the disc’s menu a fully re-mixed version of the "Shaft" theme in 5.1 <$DD,Dolby Digital> can be heard, which sounds incredibly smooth and makes you wish, Warner Home Video would have taken the extra step to re-mix – or at least clean up – the film’s original audio elements. The DVD also contains a mono French audio track as well as English and French subtitles.
The disc also contains the documentary "Filming Shaft On Location" which offers some interesting insight into the film’s production, as well as three trailers and cast biographies.

I have always found "Shaft" an exciting movie. The mix of action and thriller elements, combined with the urban settings of New York’s Harlem district creates strong visuals that is highly stylized – especially today – by the funky soundtrack. The film’s rather unconventional narrative flow at times keeps viewers always interested in the plot and the characters, and before you even know it, the film is over. This DVD is a nice package, although it does have some serious flaws. While the video could pass without major comments, the audio on the disc is below average. However, despite these problems, I truly enjoyed revisiting the streets of New York, watching "Shaft" do his thing his way, and I will most certainly check out the follow-up sequels that have been released on DVD, as well.