Directed by Gordon Parks
Written by Ernest Tidyman, John D.F. Black
Produced by Joel Freeman, Roger H. Lewis, David Golden, Ernest Tidyman, Stirling Silliphant
Starring Richard Roundtree, Charles Cioffi, Moses Gunn, Christopher St. John, Gwenn Mitchell
Silliphant, Lewis, et al. were wise to work the Blaxploitation trend at its inception without overproducing this infamously gritty crime drama, in which the tough, eponymous Harlem P.I. (Roundtree) is employed to locate the kidnapped daughter of an aging crime lord (Gunn) with the abetment of a black power gang’s honcho (St. John) and a sympathetic police detective (Cioffi) who affords him an absurd measure of liberty. Through Parks’ keen eye, sweeping pans, picturesque tracking, irruptive zooms and striking overhead establishing shots magnify venereal and investigatory montages just as well as a few cleverly concocted action sequences in squalid slums all too familiar to the masterly photojournalist. Most of the pic’s appeal hinges on Roundtree, all surly sinew and sex appeal in the lead, and it’s just as well: his enormous presence almost obscures that of his co-stars. Issac Hayes’ celebrated, superbly arranged score is its other indispensable ingredient, still funkily appealing in its playful audacity 45 years later. Certainly the lesser of his two scripts successfully adapted to the screen in ’71, Tidyman’s trickishly plotted story only ages so well: his dialogue’s as dated as the decor, though its antiquation’s countervailed by credible delivery. For a crudely cut exploitation picture intended for consumption by a target audience of young black men, Parks’ most enduring feature is not only broadly entertaining, but easily the best of its genre…and a vivid snapshot of Harlem’s squalor decades anteceding its gentrification.