I look out over the Thames as the press, guests and general well-dressed gather outside Somerset House. Liam Gallagher walks past. No one seems to notice. After a while, I exchange an ‘It’s time’ look with a fellow lone loiterer, and we make our way to the doormen. Not counting rock stars, we’re the first ones in. This is the tenth of twelve nights in the Film4 Summer Screen, which opened with Almodovar’s latest, The Skin I Live In. Since then, they’ve had an intriguing range: The Spy Who Loved Me, Thelma and Louise and Scott Pilgrim… to name a few. Tonight is the Serpico and Shaft double bill.
Inside, a mass of twenty-something’s drink, chat and picnic on the courtyard, surrounded by neoclassical architecture. It’s an unusual sight: mixing as it does the grand and the humble. My fellow loner, it transpires, was none other than resident DJ Grant Richards, who proceeds to fill the air with Isaac Hayes and Bill Withers. The next two hours pass slowly. I sit listening to the nearest conversations, which provide the lyrics to Richards’ Shaft-inspired repertoire. Someone offers me a crisp. I write in my notebook. Time passes, then the lights are dimmed.
The films, incidentally, are hardly a random pairing. Both Serpico and Shaft are cult crime dramas, set on the streets of New York and focusing – unfashionably for the 1970s – on good guys. It’s a thrill to see 40-year-old classics like these on the big screen, crackling away like original prints. Serpico stars Al Pacino as an honest cop who graduates and finds himself serving on a corrupt-to-the-core force. Playing the eccentric, slightly green rookie, it’s one of Pacino’s very best, and also a jewel in Sidney Lumet’s crown to rank alongside 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon. There’s uncomfortable sniggering at the gang-rape sequence; outright laughter when Serpico sees red and rips a gangster’s trousers off; and the murmurings of collective lament when our hero gets what’s been coming to him. The second reel is readied.
Shaft is the best-known of the 1970s subgenre made exclusively for black audiences, called ‘blaxploitation’. We follow Richard Roundtree’s detective through Harlem’s worst neighbourhoods as he searches for a gangster’s missing daughter. It thrives as a private eye flick, all stylized underworld and atmosphere, and perhaps struggles as an action film, with director Gordon Parks offering little in the payoff scenes. But above all, it’s good fun with a killer soundtrack by Isaac Hayes. The crowd loves it.
It’s around two in the morning when Shaft fades from the giant screen and the massive picnic ends. As they make their way to the exits, everyone seems to be saying the same thing: until next year.