Earlier this year word began to leak that The Criterion Collection, that respected video label known for their ultra-deluxe editions of movies, might be adding 1971’s iconic “Shaft” to their lineup. Those rumors were true, and when formally announced that it would also be part of the label’s new line of titles in 4K Ultra High Definition, it quickly became one of the most anticipated titles from the label.
I’ve spent the last few days exploring the three-disc edition of “Shaft” that’s out this week from Criterion, it’s easily one of my favorite releases they’ve ever done and well on the fast track to being my favorite release of the year from them, or any other label. More on that in a little bit. What can be said about “Shaft” that hasn’t been said already by dozens of other writers, most far better than I am at talking about?
This is a true definition of an iconic movie with a double whammy featuring one of the most iconic film scores of all time by legendary musician Isaac Hayes. Based on a novel by author Ernest Tidyman, who thought of the character as an African-American take on the kind of Noir private eyes created by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, “Shaft” focuses on private detective John Shaft.
Shaft is sought after by a Harlem mob boss who wants him to locate his daughter that’s been kidnapped. Shaft agrees when he learns money is no object, and soon finds himself in the middle of a turf war with a police officer nosing around to find out what’s going down. If “Shaft” had been in the hands of anyone other than its director, Gordon Parks, it may just have been another film of the “blaxploitation” era that it helped kick-off.
Parks had already had an impressive and respected career as a photo-journalist and documentarian before he directed his first him, 1969’s “The Learning Tree,” based on a novel he wrote. “Shaft” was only his second film, and it became a massive blockbuster. It gave its star, Richard Roundtree, a career-defining role and established the first African-American-centered film franchise in history.
The soundtrack album would soar to the top of the charts and win Hayes an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Theme From Shaft” as the film would spawn two sequels, the second of which, “Shaft’s Big Score!” Is also included in this collection. On top of that, there would be a short-lived TV series with Roundtree reprising the role, which he would do again in the 2000 and 2019 reboots of “Shaft.” It’s a great, iconic movie, this new Criterion Edition is a must-own.
OK, let’s get into the meat of the matter, what you’re wanting to know. Just how stacked is “Shaft?” Buckle up, kids. We have a lot to talk about here.
As I said earlier this is a three-disc affair. The first disc gives us “Shaft” in 4K UHD. This new master was also used for the Standard High Definition presentation on the first blu-ray, which holds bonus features, then a second blu-ray has more bonus features and the sequel to “Shaft” 1972’s “Shaft’s Big Score!” I love it when Criterion includes a whole movie as a bonus feature.
The new 4K restoration was sourced from the film’s original 35mm camera negative, with a duplicate negative used for sections that were heavily damaged. The results are stunning, I’d argue the film looks better than when it first hit theaters over 50 years ago. The colors pop, and those marvelous Noir-esq dark compositions on-screen look inky black. It’s a stunning presentation of the film.
The original 1971 monorail soundtrack is presented in a lossless, uncompressed format. This was taken straight off the two-inch, 24-track magnetic tape master. What’s even better, and is one of my favorite features of the collection, is an alternate stereo re-mix of the film’s soundtrack supervised by Isaac Hayes’ son, Isaac Hayes III. This sounds fantastic and is one of the most respective remixes of a mono film I’ve ever heard. The sound effects and dialogue sound the same, but that iconic score pops, with much more depth and punch in the wider soundscape.
There is a lot of material included in the bonus features. First, we have a New documentary on the making of Shaft featuring curator Rhea L. Combs, film scholar Racquel J. Gates, filmmaker Nelson George, and music scholar Shana L. Redmond. A 1971 behind-the-scenes feature with Parks, Roundtree, and Hayes; plus archival interviews with those three as well are included. There’s a new interview with the film’s costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi, and a new program on the Black detective and the legacy of John Shaft, featuring scholar Kinohi Nishikawa and novelist Walter Mosley.
But that’s not all! There’s the featurette “A Complicated Man: The Shaft Legacy” from 2019, more period behind-the-scenes footage from “Shaft’s Big Score!” Capping it all are trailers and other promo material, plus an essay by school Amy Abugo Ongiri. All of this is wrapped up in absolutely stunning new artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz.
“Shaft” is a great, iconic movie. One that was well overdue an edition as rich-layered as this new one from Criterion. This set is an absolute must-own and a front runner for my favorite home video release of the year. All of the bonus material provides great context and deep info about the making of the film and its place and importance in film history. Add this one to your collection immediately, you won’t regret it. See you next week.