Friday, June 14, 2019

Worth Mentioning - The Cat That Won't Cop Out

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody takes a look at all seven of the Shaft TV movies.


If you were disappointed that Richard Roundtree only played private detective John Shaft in three theatrically-released films in the 1970s, the good news is that Roundtree actually played the character in a total of ten movies back in the '70s: that theatrical trilogy was followed by seven made-for-TV movies. The somewhat disappointing news is that some elements of the iconic sex machine of a private dick were polished up to make him safer for primetime. The character lost his edge. He put away his leather jackets in favor of a suit and tie, and he spends a lot of time having pleasant interactions with the police where everyone has an equal level of respect for each other. Still, it's Roundtree as Shaft, solving mysteries to the tune of Isaac Hayes-inspired music provided by composer Johnny Pate.

Reaching television screens just six months after Shaft in Africa started playing in theatres, the first Shaft TV movie was The Enforcers, directed by John Llewellyn Moxey from a teleplay by Allan Balter and William Read Woodfield. The mystery Shaft is given to solve in this one is an intriguing one, and one that he has a personal connection to from the start. It seems someone has been on a killing spree for the last nine months, and their targets have been people who were accused of crimes but found innocent in court. Victims have been hanged, overheated in a steam room, and drowned. The seventh victim is a man who is found innocent of killing a cop at the beginning of the episode... and the eighth is the man's defense lawyer, Charles Dawson (Noah Keen). Dawson was also the lawyer for most of the other victims.

Shaft was friends with Dawson, who helped him get his P.I. license and his first jobs in the field, so he sets out to find the killer. Or killers. He does so with the help of Lieutenant Al Rossi (Ed Barth) and file clerk Laura Parks (Judie Stein), with some stakeout assistance from a fellow called Numbers (Peter Elbling).

We're shown very early on that the murders have been committed by a group of police officers, former police officers, and a retired judge who capture people they believe have been wrongly exonerated in court and give them a private re-trial. Re-trials that always end in a death sentence. Execution is carried out immediately. Dawson was executed because they charged him as an accessory to the crimes they believe his clients committed. It's a twisted set-up that provides Shaft with a good bunch of powerful criminals to bust.

The structure of showing the audience the killers at the beginning and then having us wait most of the 74 minute running time for Shaft to catch up with what we already know does feel like an odd approach, but it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the movie. The fact that we have knowledge Shaft doesn't have allows for an effective "oh no" moment toward the end, and it gives us a chance to learn more about the men involved with this vigilante club. Among them are characters played by Robert Culp, Richard Jaeckel, and Dean Jagger.

This case is so tough that Shaft gets shot, with the bullet just barely missing his heart. Thankfully, he recovers from this injury incredibly fast. My favorite line in the movie comes while Shaft is recovering in the hospital (his recovery only takes one scene). Rossi asks him about his injury, "It hurts, huh?" Shaft chuckles and replies, "Don't kid yourself; when you shoot somebody, baby, it hurts 'em."


While the Shaft TV movie The Enforcers gave away the answer to the mystery right up front, the second TV movie takes the opposite approach and makes sure the viewer is in the dark right up until the end, just like our hero John Shaft is.

Directed by Nicholas Colasanto from a script by Ellis Marcus, The Killing begins with a pimp named Sonny Bruckner (Michael Pataki) beating prostitute Diana Richie (Ja'net DuBois), sending her to the hospital. Diana refuses to give her name at the hospital, so Shaft gets a call from police Lieutenant Al Rossi in the middle of the night informing him of this beaten mystery woman who had a picture of him on her. It's kind of sad to see that Shaft is in bed alone when he gets that call, but it makes sense for the story because we're about to get a sliver of romance.

Shaft and Diana used to be in a relationship, which began when Shaft was jogging through a park where Diana happened to be modeling for a photoshoot. Shaft has multiple flashbacks to happier times when they were a couple, and these flashbacks are made kind of creepy by the musical score and the decision to saturate the image in colors like green, blue, orange, and ochre.

Saddened to hear where she has ended up in life, Shaft gets her a job working as a receptionist. Problem is, Sonny wants his prostitute back. During a confrontation at a steakhouse, Sonny and Shaft have an exchange you wouldn't hear on primetime television these days. Shaft drops a racial slur while threatening to knock Sonny's brains out of his thick skull, and Sonny responds with a racial slur of his own. These TV movies may be softer than the theatrical films, but they still have their edge.

Just when you think the episode is going to be about Shaft trying to protect Diana from Sonny, or maybe about him having to avenge Diana's death, since the title is The Killing, Colasanto and Marcus throw a twist at us: the titular killing is of Sonny, who turns up beaten to death. And since there were multiple witnesses to the beating threat at the steakhouse, Shaft takes the blame and gets arrested. Now the episode becomes about Shaft's mission to clear his name and find the real killer - a mission that is complicated when Diana goes into hiding. There are very high stakes for Shaft in this one.

I found The Killing to be an engrossing story. I liked that it threw me for a loop with a twist early on, and was interested to see how the mystery was going to be solved. To get us there, Shaft has to go outside the law. He's stripped of his private investigator license and his gun is confiscated, but he has friends in low places who can help him overcome those obstacles.


Three entries into this seven installment series of Shaft TV movies, private investigator John Shaft is finally hired by a stranger to investigate something for them. In both The Enforcers and The Killing he was drawn into a mystery by something that happened to a personal friend, but this time he actually gets hired to do his job. A man has been killed in a hit and run incident involving a car that was reported stolen, and a young man named David Oliver (Anthony Geary) has been arrested for the crime because his fingerprints were found on the ditched car's steering wheel. David's fingerprints were on file because had recently been busted at a "pot party". Shaft is hired by David's father Tom (Howard Duff), who hopes the private investigator will be able to prove his son's innocence.

Director Harry Harris and writer Ken Kolb attempted to craft another good mystery for Shaft to solve here, but they were somewhat undermined by a bit of casting. Tony Curtis shows up as Clifford Grayson, a man who secretly runs a business that is of questionable legality, and when Tony Curtis is in the cast of something like this you know he's going to have a major part in the story. He's not going to be just another cast member. So as soon as he appears on the screen, any viewer is probably going to feel like they've already cracked the case. Regardless of how it turns out, Curtis was given some good scenes to share with Roundtree.

Despite the presence of Curtis making it tough to fully suspect anybody else, Hit-Run is an interesting movie, as we go along with Shaft while he realizes David is not the sort of person who would be stealing cars and running people over and tries to figure out what really happened with the victim and the stolen car. It's clear from the beginning that this wasn't an accident, the victim was purposely run down.

While working the case, Shaft finds some time to romance Ann Lowell (Judy Pace), daughter of the car's owner. A woman Shaft thinks wants to see the hard side of life, "like those society chicks that go to fights just to see the blood". When they're interrupted by a phone call right when things are about to get hot and heavy, Shaft actually leaves her to go meet with the guy who called him. I'm not sure how I feel about Shaft doing that. Couldn't he make the guy wait a little while longer? I would say it's a good thing they were interrupted just in case she's the villain, but Shaft already had sex Neda Arneric's character in Shaft in Africa, and Ann Lowell sure isn't worse than her.

But never mind Shaft's sex life. Hit-Run was an entertaining watch.


The Kidnapping starts off with an extended action sequence that gets Shaft back into the sort of leather clothing he would wear in the theatrical Shaft films, before he made the move to television... And that's because this action sequence was lifted right out of the climax of the second Shaft film, Shaft's Big Score! There's three minutes of Big Score stock footage at the head of this TV movie. That's not a great way to get something started, but I was interested to find out why they had dropped this action sequence in here. Would The Kidnapping be connected to the end of Shaft's Big Score! in some way?

The answer is no. The Kidnapping re-uses that footage so it can recon the context. We're told that the helicopter that's chasing Shaft in this footage wasn't carrying Big Score villains, this was a completely different situation. Hired to investigate the growing number of thefts on Manhattan docks, Shaft spotted this suspicious helicopter flying around and thought it was taking stolen goods off to a freighter. It was actually carrying heroin from the freighter to an abandoned dockside warehouse. So Shaft unintentionally took down a heroin operation. I really don't like that this TV movie took footage we've previously seen so it could wrap a different story around it, and it was totally unnecessary because the heroin story isn't even relevant to the rest of the movie. All this needed was to have Shaft do something that would get him mentioned on the news. Retconned stock footage was not required for that.

Because he was on the news, Shaft catches the attention of a trio of criminals who proceed to kidnap Nancy Williamson (Karen Carlson), wife of bank owner Elliot Williamson (Paul Burke) and hold her for a $250,000 ransom. The criminals have Elliot contact Shaft so he can work as courier, taking the money from Elliot's bank to a specific location. Shaft gets the call from Elliot late at night, the call interrupting him just when he and a woman named Debbie (played by Jayne Kennedy) have decided to stop playing pool and start playing with each other. Elliot doesn't let Shaft in on the situation yet, but Shaft still calls things off with Debbie and heads out to Elliot's. This same sort of thing happened in the previous TV movie, and I refuse to believe that Shaft doesn't take a few extra minutes with these women before he goes to work.

The scene with Debbie is quite good up until the phone call; she's winning the pool game and explains to Shaft that there was a pool table at her dorm in college, "And some of us do some things better than others." When Shaft and Debbie start making out, she says she thought he only brought her to his place to shoot pool. He says he did, but "some folks just do some things better than others." Some perfectly written Shaft dialogue courtesy of Allan Balter.

Shaft agrees to help Elliot, the ransom money is acquired from the bank, and Shaft sets out to deliver the money as instructed - and then the majority of the movie deals with him having a hell of a time carrying out the instructions. He gets pulled over by a cop and this traffic stop goes terribly wrong because he's not allowed to tell the police what's going on, and this cop is racist to begin with. So Shaft ends up on foot with the police on his trail. Luckily he picks up an ally along the way, Nicholas A. Beauvy as a teenage farm boy named Matthew.

The racist cop isn't the only racial element to this movie, as the kidnappers happen to be three white guys who hide their skin and disguise their voices so they can convince everyone they're African American. They even say they got Shaft involved to help a "brother" out, as Elliot might give him some cash for getting his wife back.

Directed by Alexander Singer, The Kidnapping is actually very enjoyable and moves along at a good pace, even though the stock footage at the beginning threw me off. The way that footage was handled really bothered me, but after the first 5 minutes I don't really have any issues with the movie.


For a period of about four months from the end of 1973 through the beginning of 1974, TV viewers in the U.S. really had it made. Every three weeks they could tune in to CBS and see Richard Roundtree in a new adventure as John Shaft, each episode sporting that awesome theme music composed by Isaac Hayes. Unfortunately, not enough viewers realized how well they had it, and that's why the Shaft series of TV movies ended up coming to an end after only seven had been made.

The Cop Killer TV movie aired on the night of January 1st, 1974, and viewers who caught it started the new year watching Shaft put in his best effort to thwart a criminal organization that's making money by stealing cars and shipping them off to South America - and they're having a lot of success at this because they're paying off a good number of police officers.

Directed by Lee Philips from a script by Ken Kolb, Cop Killer is another TV movie where Shaft has a personal reason to want to solve the mystery. He's first contacted by Charles Tyler (James A. Watson Jr.), a police officer who's dedicated to bringing down corrupt cops, even if it messes up his career. But now it's messing up his life, as he has been framed for crimes himself. Shaft agrees to help Tyler clear his name because Tyler's wife Marcia (Kim Hamilton) went to high school with him and helped him pass algebra. That's not the deepest personal connection Shaft will have to this situation. Shaft convinces his police contact Lieutenant Al Rossi to head up the Tyler investigation... and when Rossi gets close to busting the same corrupt cops Tyler was on the trail of, he gets gunned down for his troubles.

You don't mess with Rossi and get away with it. Shaft embarks on a mission of vengeance with the intention of bringing down the car thieves and their police officer pals.

This investigation brings Shaft in contact with characters like retired police officer Tom Donegan (Richard Schaal), club owner Wally Doyle (George Maharis), lounge singer Eve (Talya Ferro), and most notably Rossi's replacement on the case, Captain Brian Brewster, who is played by the great Darren McGavin. Cop Killer takes turns viewers will probably predict, and some they might not see coming.

Cop Killer is a compelling movie that thankfully doesn't live up to its title - Rossi survives, and so does Tyler's career. It also provides the amusing sight of Shaft going undercover as a car thief from Chicago who has a much different demeanor than his own.


The sixth Shaft TV movie, The Capricorn Murders had me hooked from the opening scene, where we see David Hedison - the only actor to play James Bond's pal Felix Leiter twice (opposite Roger Moore in Live and Let Die and Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill) until Jeffrey Wright in the Daniel Craig films - taking hits of oxygen and being bullied into killing his wife. Hedison is playing Gil Kirkwood, a business man at Capricorn International who has just swindled stock holders out of millions of dollars, and his associate J.L. Teague (Don Knight) thinks killing his wife Joanna (Cathy Lee Crosby) is going to be just the thing to make sure Gil can spend the rest of his life on the beaches in Rio instead of in prison.

The attack on Joanna is then carried out in quite a unique way. She's lured over to Gil's office, and once she's in the room the office phone rings, setting off an explosion that knocks her out. As flames spread around the room, Teague steps in wearing fire resistant clothing and starts spraying some accelerant around. This provided a cool visual that a groggy Joanna later describes as looking like "an astronaut in the fires of Hell".

Yes, Joanna is able to describe things later because a maintenance man happens to come in and save her life as soon as Teague has made his exit. From her hospital bed she gives a call to John Shaft - who is, unfortunately, again shown to be sleeping in bed alone. These TV movies really didn't live up to the "sex machine" part of Shaft's theme song. Shaft and Joanna met a while back, he used to work at Capricorn in his younger days, so she knows he's trustworthy.

While Shaft works to figure out why someone tried to kill Joanna in a fire that everyone believes did kill Gil, a case his police detective friend Al Rossi is also digging into, Joanna works to try to save Capricorn International - and they quickly pick up clues that Gil was even more of a criminal than they already knew he was. And he's still alive. Building up to the South America getaway, Gil and Teague have their accomplice Harry Praeger (Robert Phillips) try to finish the job of killing Joanna. Praeger doesn't have much luck, but his endeavor adds in some good scenes of suspense and action into the story.

Written by Ellis Marcus and directed by Allen Reisner, The Capricorn Murders features a nasty bunch of bad guys and never seems to go very long without some kind of exciting event going on, whether it's a chase or someone getting shot at. Or just plain shot. That fire is a great start to things, and Rossi gets a nice hero moment late in the episode. A hero moment that was set up by Shaft, of course.


The series of Shaft TV movies liked to include the words "kill" or "murder" in the titles. The Murder Machine this one is named for isn't any sort of vehicle or device, it's a person - a hitman played by veteran character actor Glu Gulager. Gulager's character is actually referred to as a "killing machine" within the movie itself, but calling the movie The Killing Machine wouldn't have helped it have a unique title in this batch.

Unfortunately, The Murder Machine was the seventh and last movie in the series, so this marks the last time fans would get to see Richard Roundtree play Shaft until his appearance in the Samuel L. Jackson Shaft movie twenty-six years later. Making this even more unfortunate is the fact that Shaft kind of gets overshadowed in his own movie. For a large portion of the running time, this feels like the Clu Gulager Hour. Or the Clu Gulager 74 minutes. Which I can't complain about too much, because Gulager is awesome, and it's very cool that he got to go up against Shaft as a villain so formidable he almost steals the show.

This murder machine of a man is named Richard Quayle, and we get to know him pretty well. We get to see how he operates, what sort of methods he has used to reach legendary status in the hitman field, even though he only takes two or three hits a year. And we see his home life. When Richard isn't out killing people, he's a loving husband and father who works as an insurance salesman.

We get to see Gulager share scenes with some notable actors who are still working to this day. (Including Roundtree.) Before being hired to perform a hit, Richard interacts with the bodyguard of his potential employer, and this bodyguard was played by Sid Haig, a character actor whose 150 credits (currently) almost match Gulager's 165 (currently). Richard's wife Louise is played by Fionnula Flanagan, and I was surprised to see her as a redhead in her early 30s, because I have really only taken note of Flanagan through the roles she has played with grey hair in the last 20 years. But she has over 130 credits and had already been acting on the screen for nine years by the time this TV movie aired.

Louise has an interesting subplot where she figures out what her husband's side job is and desperately tries to convince him to quit, even though neither of them will come out and directly say what this job is.

Richard gets on Shaft's bad side when he kills a man who was preparing to testify against a big-time criminal. He pulls this off in the parking garage of the courthouse, disguising himself in police riot gear and rolling a grenade right in front of the guy. By the time the grenade explodes, Richard is already riding to safety in an elevator. It's a very cool, well put together assassination scene. This grenade kills its target and injures Shaft's pal, police Lieutenant Al Rossi. But that's not the part that really pisses Shaft off.

In the first Shaft TV movie, The Enforcers, we saw Shaft getting assistance from file clerk Laura Parks, played by Judie Stein. Laura makes her return in The Murder Machine, so it worked out that she is in the first and last movies of the series. Judie Stein bookends. Here Laura is about to get married to a man Shaft introduced her to, so Shaft is going to be their best man. It's set to be a courthouse wedding, so Laura, her fiancé, and Shaft are all in the parking garage when Richard tosses his grenade. And Laura's fiancé dies shielding her from the blast.

So now Shaft is out to get revenge on the Murder Machine. He checks with his informants who might have some information on such a person, the scene he shares with a fellow called Moon (Bill Walker) being a standout for me. Then he works to lure Richard in by saying he got a good look at the assassin, and that the target gave him a dying declaration that could still be used against the man he was going to testify against.

Richard has to tie up this loose end, setting up a Richard Roundtree vs. Clu Gulager finale... Which I have to say, doesn't turn out to be nearly as epic as it sounds, or as it should have been.

Despite an underwhelming conclusion, The Murder Machine holds up as a decent watch because of the actors involved, and because director Lawrence Dobkin and writer William Read Woodfield chose to spend a lot of time building up an interesting villain played by a great actor.

It's a shame the Shaft TV series ended here, because I would have been glad to watch a lot more of these. I'm grateful this series happened at all, though, as it gave us seven more movies worth of Roundtree's Shaft even after the films left the big screen. Sure, the TV movies softened him quite a bit - the final moments in The Murder Machine involve him drinking espresso at home with Rossi and making friendly dinner plans with mousy Laura, not exactly being a "bad mother - shut your mouth" - but I can go along with it because it's so much fun to watch Roundtree in the role.

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