Talkin’ ‘Bout Shaft

June 18th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

I bought Ernest Tidyman’s novel Shaft in 1970 at Iowa Book & Supply in Iowa City, on my way to class at the University of Iowa. I bought the first edition hardcover primarily because its black private eye hero was described in the jacket copy as making “Mike Hammer look like a sissy.”

When the film Shaft came out in 1971, Barb and I were there. We were perhaps unlikely fans of blaxploitation movies (then in their earliest stages), but we went to scads of the things, from Cotton Comes to Harlem to Coffy, from Slaughter to Super Fly.

For us, Shaft topped them all, due to the perfect marriage of the opening Isaac Hayes theme, Richard Roundtree’s charismatic performance, and Gordon Parks’ gritty, location-heavy direction. The follow-up, Shaft’s Big Score, wasn’t as good, but the finale was incredible, with John Shaft chased through an industrial landscape by a swooping helicopter. For some reason, the third entry, Shaft in Africa, didn’t make it to many theaters, and we didn’t see it until home video years later; but it turned out to be the best of the three. Unsung hero of the series was producer and Africa screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, the genius behind TV’s Route 66 and Naked City.

Shaft came to TV in one of those rotating anthology “wheels” (like the one that included Columbo and McCloud), but after seven TV movies the series was cancelled, though ratings had been good. The show got a lot of criticism for lacking the grit of the films, but looking at them years later, they seem pretty good (and I liked them at the time), with Roundtree great and the Hayes theme in play. They are available from Warner Archives as a boxed DVD set.

Warner Archives also just released Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa on blu-ray for the first time (the original Shaft has been available on blu-ray for several years), both as individual discs and in a three-disc set of all three features. I had long hoped for this kind of blu-ray release and it doesn’t disappoint. I have not revisited the 2000 Shaft with Samuel Jackson as the nephew of the original, played again by Roundtree. I will get around to seeing it again, but remember finding it just passable.

Now there’s a fifth Shaft film, and guess what? The critics hate it, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Seems the elder two Shafts (a young Millennial Shaft is the actual protagonist) strike them as politically incorrect, gun-loving louts, misogynist and violent. But the audience reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

There’s a reason audiences responded so favorably – it’s a terrific picture. I was in that joyous state I so seldom find myself in, these days, in movie theaters: I was a pig in shit. A lot of advance (pre-anybody seeing it) criticism has been thrown at the new Shaft on Facebook and elsewhere, for being a comedy and for not using the iconic Isaac Hayes theme. On Facebook, the question was posed indignantly: What kind of Shaft movie doesn’t have the Isaac Hayes theme? Many Facebook experts agreed that all real Shaft movies have that theme.

Of course, someone – I believe it was me – weighed in to point out that Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa, two of the original three films, also didn’t have the Hayes theme. Now that I’ve seen the new Shaft, I realize the theme is used a lot – just minus the Isaac Hayes vocal. But the wah-wah pedal-driven theme is used beautifully, when real Shaft-like stuff kicks in, like Jackson walking down a ghetto street, gun in hand, ready to kick drug dealer ass.

I pity the fools (as someone once said) who cannot enjoy this knowingly politically incorrect salute to the original film and its cinematic era. Roundtree doesn’t enter till act three, but he does so with a bang – a number of them. He’s wonderful.

But so is Jackson, much better than he’s been lately in some of his projects, spurred on this time by good material. Jessie Usher is winning as John Shaft, Jr., and the generational interplay between him and Jackson is funny and even at times touching. Director/co-screenwriter Tim Story does a fine job with both his actors and his action scenes.

As for this being a comedy, no – it’s a crime flick with comedy, not even tongue-in-cheek, although it does have an awareness of its absurdity. A scene in an Uber while Jackson tries to explain the film’s convoluted plot to Usher, getting interrupted by a chatty driver, is amusing proof of that. So is Roundtree’s throwaway reference to being called Jackson’s uncle, not father, in the 2000 Shaft.

The original novels by French Connection creator Ernest Tidyman are an odd but worthwhile bunch. Tidyman wrote the first three – Shaft, Shaft Among the Jews and Shaft’s Big Score – while the remaining books employed ghosts who worked from Tidyman’s outlines, with Tidyman apparently doing final drafts.

In my view, Tidyman screwed up Shaft’s potential as a long-running series character by utilizing two different ghosts and not doing all (or anyway most of) the work himself. The final book, in which he rather rudely and unnecessarily kills Shaft off, The Last Shaft, appeared only in England and remains difficult to find. Took me years, and I had begun to think the similarly titled, Goodbye, Mr. Shaft, was the same book.

Author David Walker has picked up the series in both prose and graphic novel from, doing so with respect and skill.

Also of note is The World of Shaft by Steve Aldous, with a Walker foreword. It’s from McFarland, so it’s pricey, but it’s a wonderful book. McFarland has a 25% off sale going right now, so it’s a good time to buy The World of Shaft…and Mickey Spillane on Screen. [Note from Nate: Here’s a link to The World of Shaft and another for Spillane on Screen. Enter code ANN2019 at checkout for 25% off.]

By all means, if you liked the Richard Roundtree Shaft, ignore the idiotic, easily offended critics and have a good time with this funny, exciting tribute to blacksploitation of yore.

* * *

The audio of the new Caleb York, Last Stage to Hell Junction, is beautifully performed by Jack Garrett, whose range of voices is just perfect. I have been lucky to have solid narrators on this series so far, and Garrett continues my lucky streak.

And the book itself has received a wonderful review from Bookgasm. Check it out!

M.A.C.

Centuries & Sleuths Rules!

June 11th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

The signing at Centuries & Sleuths on Sunday afternoon was a lot of fun. Not a big group, but dedicated fans – familiar faces plus a couple who drove 3 ½ hours to see me. As Judy Tenuta says, it could happen.

The occasion was Antiques Ravin’ by Barbara Allan and everybody bought a copy. Barb was charming and funny, and I blathered as usual. Lots of good questions, though, and a young woman impressed me with her knowledge of and interest in hardboiled fiction. How wonderful to find a Millennial female who is a fan of Mike Hammer and loves Velda.

Other fans encouraged me to keep writing Hammer, and I assured them that I had another half dozen books I could write from Spillane material.


M.A.C. and longtime fan Mike Doran

I am writing this Sunday night. Monday Brad Schwartz and I will go to WGN-TV to be interviewed by Larry Potash about E.J. O’Hare, the Capone Outfit crony whose son O’Hare Airport is named for. It’s part of promoting the trade paperback of Scarface and the Untouchable, which was just published. As you may recall, it has additional new material that wasn’t in the hardcover, and a few corrections have been made as well.

Brad appeared at the Printer’s Row book expo on Sunday while Barb and I (Barbara Allan, remember?) did the signing and talk at Centuries and Sleuths.

I do precious few bookstore appearances these days, but Centuries and Sleuths, with its emphasis on history and mystery is special, as are Augie and his wife Tracy Alesky, the owners of the cozy but book-packed shop.


M.A.C. and Augie

Barb and Tracy

Bob Goldsborough showed up, before Barb and I did our talk, to get some books signed by me, and by him to me, as well. He is doing a fantastic job continuing the Nero Wolfe series, and we make an obnoxious mutual admiration society.

* * *

Here’s a terrific review of Last Stage to Hell Junction.

M.A.C.

An Anniversary and a Passing

June 4th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

I celebrated 51 years of marriage to Barbara Jane (Mull) Collins this weekend. The weather was lovely and we had a wonderful time together, which included delicious meals, walks in the sun, the new Godzilla movie, and a successful search for a summer wardrobe for yrs truly. Other details are too intimate to share, but let me say…if I could marry this woman a second time, I would.

I am burying the lede (I hate spelling it that way!), but Barb and I, in our Barbara Allan mode, will be appearing for Antiques Ravin’ at Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park, Illinois, at 2 pm on Sunday June 9. That’s at 7419 Madison St, Forest Park, IL 60130. The phone there is 708-771-7243. Centuries and Sleuths specializes in history and mystery, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we love it.

* * *

The great portrait artist, Everett Raymond Kinstler, had died at 92 – a long life well-lived. To me, and many others in the world of comics, his portraiture is overshadowed by his early work for the pulps, paperback covers and comic books.

Some of what follows is drawn from my introduction to the Hermes Press collection of pre-Disney Zorro comics.

Several decades ago, when I was just beginning to write the Dick Tracy comic strip, I wrote Everett Raymond Kinstler a fan letter about his Zorro comics. He wrote back, astonished that anyone was still interested in such ancient work, and invited me to join him in his studio at the fabled Player’s Club on my next visit to New York.

I did. He was gracious and friendly, the studio exactly what you’d expect, a high-ceilinged, sunlight-streaming space. He was working on a John Wayne portrait, and I was just becoming aware of what a very big deal this artist was, painter of movie stars and presidents. But what pleased me most was how fond he was – how enthusiastic he remained – about his brief tenure on Zorro. He clearly felt it was his best work in comics.

He was warm and lively and not at all patronizing. He gave me a lovely original that still hangs in my office – the inside front cover of a ‘50s crime comic book (he also gave me a signed copy of his book on painting portraits with a drawing on the flyleaf). I also have a Classics Illustrated page that I bought from Heritage for a relative song a few years ago (pictured here).

As the years have passed, this much-respected artist never shied away from or downplayed his formative years in the pulps and in comics, and that in itself makes him a remarkable man.

I spoke with him maybe ten years ago at a San Diego Comic Con and we caught up. I’ve received lovely Christmas cards from him over the years, and he was very happy that I had managed to get his Zorro art collected in book form by Hermes Press.

Look, this guy encountered – and painted – many of the great figures of the Twentieth Century. And yet he had not a particle of snobbery in his make-up. He loved having worked in the comics.

The book to get about this great man and great artist is Everett Raymond Kinstler: The Artist’s Journey Through Popular Culture – 1942-1962. It’s a hundred bucks at Amazon but Bud’s Art Books has it at bargain prices ($30 for the hardcover, $15 for the trade paperback!). Order it here, but move quickly.

But you should also track down Zorro: The Complete Dell Pre-Code Comics from Hermes Press, which I introduced and edited. It’s out of print and somewhat pricey, but ebay has a couple of copies for around fifty bucks.

Read about Ray Kinstler and see some examples of his work here.

Read one of his great Zorro stories here.

I’ve lost another hero, but if I could live that long, and continue to work at my peak as Ray did, I would be content.

* * *

Here’s an interesting, insightful review of my 1976 novel, Quarry (actually written around 1972).

And, finally, Ron Fortier has reviewed the splendid trade paperback from Brash Books of Black Hats.

M.A.C.

Confessions of a Laserdisc Fiend Pt. 2 & New Caleb York

May 28th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

Hardcover:
E-Book: Google Play Kobo
Digital Audiobook: Google Play Kobo

Today (Tuesday May 28) is pub date for Last Stage to Hell Junction, the new Spillane/Collins “Caleb York” novel. It’s a hardcover and you will probably be able to find it in the western sections of Barnes & Noble and BAM! Also, this means those of you who have been waiting to review the novel, having won a copy in a book giveaway, will now be able to post your thoughts at Amazon.

I like this one quite a bit, as much of it happens outside of Trinidad, New Mexico, which has been pretty much the sole setting of the previous three novels. I had in mind the Warner Bros television westerns of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that, as much as anything, made me love the western form. My particular favorite was Maverick, which is the only one of those shows I’ve revisited extensively in recent years, although I’ve collected the DVD sets of all the rest, from Cheyenne to Sugarfoot, from Lawman to Bronco.

Maverick, of course, is known for its genre-spoofing approach, but the series had plenty of serious episodes, particularly (but not exclusively) the Jack Kelly-starring Bart ones. The very best episodes usually had both Bart and James Garner’s Bret, and these did tend toward humor; but a surprising number had noir-ish aspects and Agatha Christie-like enclosed settings. Hell Junction has the latter by way of a ghost town hotel that is welcome only to outlaws.

If you’ve been avoiding Caleb York because the novels are westerns and not crime novels, you are making the wrong assumption, and I encourage you to take a ride on this particular Hell-bound stage.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the laserdisc ranch….

So far the experience has proven to be neither folly nor triumph. The 21″-inch tube TV (CRT) arrived and, with Barb’s help, I managed to extricate it from a big cardboard box full of smunched newspaper and packing peanuts. Such an experience is will-crushing in and of itself, and that was just the beginning.

What followed was an effort by a heart-patient/recovering stroke victim up the stairs with the heavy, clumsy TV aided by a not thrilled-about-it wife. I had, as luck would have it, a cabinet that was perfect for the TV to rest upon, a big square boxy affair that was designed to hold LPs with a built-in shelf designed for nothing in particular. That shelf would have been perfect for the laserdisc player to rest within, but no hole in the back existed to feed cords through. And I am a do-it-yourself-er whose skills do not include drilling a small hole in a piece of wood.

I had earlier ordered a stand from Amazon for a princely $28 that would support the TV and under which the laserdisc player would (theoretically) slide. This little stand, a sturdy effer, needed assembly. Either Barb or I assembled it. I will allow you to decide which of us was capable of that task. If you are giving me the benefit of the doubt, you are making a mistake.

Next step was to set the 21″-inch TV on top of the stand. Not that bad a job we made of it, for two people with a collective age of 141 years. I had shrewdly studied the specs at the Amazon listing and knew everything would be perfect. Plenty of room to slide that laserdisc player within the stand.

I’d already connected the appropriate cords and a S-video cable to the laserdisc player, so we set the TV sideways on the stand and completed connecting everything up. We eased the TV into position. We prepared to slide the laserdisc player home.

Amazon’s specs, however, did not include a wooden brace under the stand that made the passageway two inches or so smaller. No room at the inn (we could have used Jesus – he was a carpenter, after all). So I needed to prop up the stand at least two inches, all around. I considered pieces of wood, and then Barb suggested something we have no shortage of – books.

I tried four copies of the paperback edition of Road to Paradise – not quite right. After several other attempts, we used the Bantam mass market paperback of Stolen Away – representing my first royalties from that edition.

The laserdisc player now slid under perfectly. I was delighted. I turned to say as much to Barb, but for some reason, she had disappeared. Oh well.


M.A.C. with three random laserdiscs.

I fired everything up and all seemed tickety-boo. The laserdisc player made some disturbing noises, like a Tasmanian devil clearing its throat, but soon settled down. I selected a laserdisc to try out – The Bangles Greatest Hits (all of their hits, actually) – and pushed a button on the laserdisc player to open the tray into which the disc would go. The tray emerged and revealed a disc already in there. Somewhat disturbingly, its label was loose – had come unglued, picked off its perch by the hands of Father Time.

Also, disturbingly, the label on the reverse side of the shining disc was M.I.A. This meant it was somewhere down inside the machine. So far that didn’t seem to matter, though it might explain the initial sounds of discomfort emanating from the belly of the beast.

But the Bangles looked fine on the little TV – much better than such discs had looked on a flat screen – and the music sounded great. The girls (I mean, young women) may have had only enough hits to fill one compilation, but what great hits they were.

As Borat once said, “Success!”

That evening I selected another disc – Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Lewis performing in Vegas. Summoned the tray, filled it, sent it back into the machine. The disc looked and sounded great! When it was over, I pushed the button to eject the disc (I had done this successfully with the Bangles LD, earlier in the day).

The grinding returned, more forcefully now, the Tasmanian devil’s jaws grinding, and the disc tray would not open.

I tried various tactics to open it, all desperate in nature, and got nowhere. Finally I unhooked the laserdisc player, which still had its previous Sammy and Jerry disc in its mouth, and tried another machine. That machine was older and it too grumbled (even though it had not ingested a laserdisc label), but it did play. It does play. But it’s sluggish, taking forever to warm up and to perform such functions as ejecting a disc, and its key feature – playing side B after side A completes – does not function at all.

I am hobbling along with this disc player until I find if the original player I tried can be repaired. I believe it is merely a case of removing the semi-ingested laser disc label from the player’s mechanical innards. I’ve taken it to a computer store, where the gent is going to give it a try, though he looks from me to the Pioneer player and back again, as if trying to figure out which of us is the dinosaur, only to conclude: both.

But I will succeed. I promise you. I am not easy to dissuade. It’s the only child in me.

I will report back, whether you want me to or not.

* * *

Here’s a really nice review of Girl Most Likely.

I’m not sure why this 2017 interview of me by Sean Leary was recently posted, but Sean did his typical good job.

Finally, check out this great review of the Mike Hammer graphic novel from Titan.

M.A.C.

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