‘Shaft,’ ‘Dirty Harry’ and the rise of the supercop
By Wesley Morris
Anybody sifting through the 1970s for American movies’ most definitive year might start with ’72: “The Godfather,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Deliverance,” “Pink Flamingos,” “Deep Throat.” Or ’75: “Jaws,” “Nashville,” “Dolemite,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Shampoo,” “Barry Lyndon.” Or ‘77: “Star Wars,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Annie Hall.”
My vote goes to 1971. Not because the movies were better — the top draw was, depending on the source, either a studio musical about a Jewish shtetl wedding (“Fiddler on the Roof”) or a grubby, independently made beat-em-‘up set around a school on an Arizona Indian reservation (“Billy Jack”). 1971 was the year that Gene Hackman strolls into a Brooklyn bar and goes to town on its Black clientele during an interlude in “The French Connection.” It’s the year President Richard M. Nixon’s campaign threats of law-and-order governance had, at last, come flagrantly true at the movies, the year the American supercop was born.
Everybody knows him: so exasperated by the bureaucracy of police work that breaking the law becomes his way of upholding it. He’s just north of middle age, drunk, white, monomaniacal, trigger-happy; never caped yet stylish in his turtlenecks, sweater vests, pork pie hats and visible holster; and, in his way, handsome, roguishly. While everybody else is going by the book, the supercop declares himself illiterate.
He arrives after late-’60s smashes like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Bullitt,” thrillers in which the cops were keeping incompetent or venal company in the form of their fellow officers.
These were strong, straight-arrow types forced into deviations from standard procedure — Sidney Poitier slapping a racist, murder-suspect moneybags in “In the Heat of the Night”; Steve McQueen taking the heat for hiding a witness from a crooked senator in “Bullitt.” The fight then was against corruption.
By 1971, corruption had become proof of obsessive dedication and hyper-competence — a means to an end. Warner Bros. released “Dirty Harry” starting that December and invented, by way of Clint Eastwood, a one-man counter-countercultural strike force whose “Do ya feel lucky, punk?” speeches are the character’s version of Miranda rights. The San Francisco Police Department is too mired in procedure, second-guessing and sheer slowness for Harry Callahan. The calm with which he glides toward a bank robber he just shot, in one of the opening sequences, belongs in one of those David Attenborough nature specials.
The arguably decent cops work for themselves — in “Klute,” in “Shaft,” fighting crime that didn’t (or couldn’t) interest regular law enforcement. The sense of paranoid conspiracy that eventually defined the decade was already in the air by 1971. So was what often got called ultraviolence. That spring, moviegoers got a scandalizing load of “Straw Dogs,” in which a milquetoast math-nerd (Dustin Hoffman) has a near-erotic awakening after slaying the men who tortured him and raped his wife. The graphically assaultive nature of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” shocked people — critics especially — in part because it was unclear (to some moviegoers) whether Kubrick intended the violence as comedy. But his film hooked droves of people, too. These movies were hits.
“Billy Jack” feels like an exception. It’s the worst of these crowd pleasers. It clunks and clops. The director, Tom Laughlin, who was white, also plays the movie’s title character, a youngish, leathery former Green Beret who polices an Indian reservation and is supposed to be half-Navajo himself. It’s the second in a series of popular Billy Jack films — and a prototype for whatever Chuck Norris was about to get up to in Texas: full of wood, bare feet and flying dust. Here, Billy’s defending the reservation’s school for wayward pacifists from the capitalist bullies in the nearby town.
The acting is trapped between obnoxious and earnest. Worse, the last shot crests with the kids giving Billy a Black power salute as he turns himself in. Still, there’s something here. There are the dueling impulses of the Vietnam era as epitomized by Billy’s gun-toting hapkido expertise and the students’ disdain for violence. There’s a scene in which the kids debate the town council about its abuse of law and order. The film feels like it’s about being caught between two lifestyles — the hippies’ and Nixon’s. It’s about the need for a kind of action movie valiance that, by 1971, is dead in a way and never entirely returns.
Not long before “Billy Jack,” you can see the movies trying to lure the supercop’s prototype from the brink of heartlessness. In “Bullitt,” McQueen pauses the legendary car chase to make sure a fellow who’s been thrown from his motorcycle is at least still alive. Nobody in the “The French Connection” cares about any of that. Its ruthlessness demolishes property and consciences alike.
The movie is about a car full of drugs that’s been shipped to lower Manhattan from the French Riviera and, for reasons no one has ever persuasively explained to me, left parked on the street. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s also about this bar Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) shakes down at about the half-hour mark. It’s a small, dim, busy enough place. And in he barges, with his sidekick “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider). Doyle unplugs the jukebox and identifies himself, not as a detective with the New York City Police Department. But this way: “Popeye’s here!” Like he owns the joint.
At his command, everybody migrates to the wall, producing this sad array of circumstantial resignation (here we go again). Admittedly, as Doyle sweeps beneath the bar counter and turns up pill bottles and baggies, a couple of the faces do seem anxious-looking if not outright guilt-stricken; and two gentlemen are sent into phone booths, which appears to be Doyle and Russo’s thing. One small-time suspect is actually an informant — with a mussed, drooping Afro — who offers platonic dope about a big shipment coming in. He doesn’t have much else for Doyle. When they’re through, Doyle wants to know where he would prefer to be socked, lest the other customers suspect something.
That little scrap of dirt means little to the wider plot. It’s corroborative. You could cut that scene and still have the same thrilling movie. But the thrill wouldn’t be quite the same. You’d miss the dueling liberties at work here, the way the supercop can do as he pleases, how the bar patrons must do as he says. You’d miss the exclamatory alacrity of what Hackman achieves in this scene — shouting and prowling and flirting, like a peacock, like a rooster. Like a star. (Doyle won Hackman an Oscar; the movie was voted best picture.)
I have always watched this scene in awe of Hackman’s command of that tiny space. But the last few times I’ve seen it, my eyes are drawn to the lineup, essentially in salute as he struts his exit. Doyle’s departure isn’t dissimilar to the one that ends “Billy Jack.” This one is cockier. Most of the people lining the wall are men. But on the end, farthest from the entrance, is a Black woman in a patterned purple dress, leaning on a table. Doyle passes her and barks aloud for the whole bar to hear, “Get that hair done before Saturday.” She keeps her head turned away from him, so as to protect herself from the stench of his insult. I imagine her wanting to die, nonetheless, of embarrassment and disgust. What did she do? Was this flirtation? Was it ownership? Her hair, by the way, looks fine.
It’s not unreasonable to presume that director William Friedkin and editor Gerald B. Greenberg won their Oscars in large part for the movie’s definitive car-versus-train sequence. But what if they also won for the proprietary truth of this?
Imagine getting a steady diet of moments like that or one in which Russo lights up a different bar full of Black men. Imagine a steady diet of mistreatment and criminalization that always seems disconnected from the main drug-cartel or serial-killer plot. Imagine being grist for somebody else’s realism, evidence of the supercop’s superiority — busywork while he’s out there trying to fry bigger fish. Sport. The poster for “The French Connection” is more propagandistically succinct: “Doyle,” it reads, “is bad news but a good cop.” You don’t say.
But 1971 was also the year a Black audience could get used to a brief alternative, a respite from serving as trash for cops to take out. That spring, Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” began its odyssey toward becoming a sleeper sensation. Where Laughlin seems resistant to disillusionment, Van Peebles throws disillusionment an orgy.
People cite this is as the film that unleashed Black, do-it-your-damn-self moviemaking in this country — a cheap, amateurish, inarguably strange chase picture about a fugitive cop-killer, whom Van Peebles plays as if he’s waiting for an actor with a more radical sense of damnation or professionalism to take over. Everything collides contrapuntally: pool sticks and bodies; women and men; police and Black people. It’s a mess. Scraps of the avant-garde (Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger) are smushed together with what certain people think French movies are.
Parts of it seem lifted right out of Jules Dassin’s marvelously strange, inadequately cherished “Uptight,” from 1968. Parts of it are consciously taking a stab at “Easy Rider,” and Poitier’s ultimately agreeable half of “The Defiant Ones.” Parts of it are close to porn. Every minute of it was meant for Van Peebles’ people: “This is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the man,” reads one of the titles that plays over a still shot of Van Peebles in the middle of some listless running. So it was a mess Black Americans needed somebody to make.
It’s reasonable that an audience sitting through “The French Connection” would have been preexhilarated by “Sweetback” and by “Shaft,” which opened in June of that year and felt like another antidote to what Popeye is pushing.
The clamoring for it in Black communities was intense. It reportedly grossed a million dollars at a single Chicago theater and launched a merchandising boom. Allegedly, the part of John Shaft had been intended for McQueen or Charlton Heston. But you watch Richard Roundtree strolling around Harlem in this movie, with ease and a real knowing, and you laugh thinking about how Heston would have worked out.
The plot is decent enough. A drug lord named Bumpy (Moses Gunn) needs Shaft to find his daughter, who’s been kidnapped. That’s it. Almost everything else is righteous politics. Before Shaft hits the streets, he gives Bumpy a lecture about how bad his drugs-and-hookers business is for Black people. As Shaft pounds the pavement, talking to contacts, director Gordon Parks shoots Roundtree from inside eateries and on the sidewalks. There’s a homey serenity to that montage, a sadness, too. Throughout it we hear Isaac Hayes’ “Soulsville,” a church-band hymn whose first couplet is “Black man, born free/ at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Parks lets in a rare, life-size solemnity. At one stop on Shaft’s investigation, a man who answers the door calls after him, almost plaintively: “Know what the number was today?” Shaft doesn’t. And it’s that sadness that lingers over this movie and almost all of the so-called blaxploitation films that followed in its wake. Nobody ever hits the lottery. The lottery keeps hitting them. In just about three or four years, the look of the movies had changed, from bright and expansive to hard and gritty — even the musicals looked like they were in gangs. Things had changed just enough to incorporate this kind of hard, dolorous realism.
In “The French Connection,” the protagonists chase and beat up a pile of Black Harlemites and Brooklynites. And Doyle says to Russo at some point, “Never trust a nigger.” A Black person might hear that and notice that these white people could keep getting away with — and getting awards for — this stuff. A filmmaker could love “The French Connection” and want to mimic it while also making heroes of the guys those cops keep shaking down. It’s just that after five more strong years of Black-oriented movies (lots of which were made by white people) they had evolved into impersonations, of white hits, of themselves.
But for this brief moment, Parks discovered what still feels like a vaccine for all that ailed a Black moviegoer for most of the movies’ existence. Shaft was more than a supercop. Rather casually, he had to be super at everything, including being in on the joke, including sex.
Parks also uses desire in damnation of the Black buck stereotype. After half an hour, Shaft is suddenly at home wearing nothing but the album cover he’s holding over his crotch when his woman comes home and runs to him. He pulls her to him, kisses her deep and as he’s trying to unzip her dress, Parks is already fading out to their lovemaking, which is really just a lot of bright light superimposed over a shot of her hands caressing his back until they begin to wag in palsied ecstasy. Parks was a mesmerist photojournalist and a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. This movie feels like indiscreet political art. It quenched the thirst for movies in which Black people had sex, with one another, and with white women, as Shaft does a few scenes later.
The movie opens horny. The first shot peers down at Times Square movie marquees, and the first name you notice, before Roundtree’s even shows up, is Burt Lancaster’s on a sign for a theater playing “The Scalphunters” and “Rough Night in Jericho.” The camera tracks down the street, from marquee to marquee: Robert Redford in “Little Fauss and Big Halsy,” under which is a legible B-A-R-B-A, which, presumably, is short for “Barbarella.” The longer the pan goes on, the trashier yet better the titles get: the erotic Italian romp “He and She” shares a spot with “The Animal.” The last one we see is written in red: “School for Sex” plus “The Wild Females.”
It’s not hard to miss the point: that you’re watching a movie lasciviously called (if you’re so inclined) “Shaft.” In 1971, you also know that none of these other movies has much to do for or with a Black person. Parks deduces a pecking order in the quality, and that order gives him a joke to tell. Right after we take in “School for Sex,” the cymbal taps of Hayes’ theme song kick in, “Shaft” appears in red, and up out of the subway, from underground to the surface, comes 28-year-old Roundtree, in a leather trench coat, mustache and little Afro, declaring his stardom and correcting 60 or so years of Black sexual neglect. The buck starts here.
As for that woman at the bar that Doyle shakes down? The movies never quite made amends to her. Not even the Black ones. They were for her yet never sufficiently about her.