What a difference four years can make. In 1969, when Sam Greenlee published the novel on which tonight’s film was based, the Panthers were in the ascendancy, the Weather Underground was born, and Thunderclap Newman was exhorting everyone to hand out the arms and ammo, because, hell, the revolution was here. You knew it was right. Or you would have known, had you been there. A novel about a Black Nationalist who undergoes five years of CIA training before dropping out to form a cell of armed militants and trigger a nationwide war of racial liberation? Well, sure. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, one suspects, but to be young must have been almost unbearable.
All the same, by the autumn of 1973, when Ivan Dixon’s film adaptation had its premiere, the times they were a-not really going anywhere. Or not anywhere good. The economy had stalled; the war in Vietnam, while winding down, was still grinding on; and the explosive insurrectionary energies of a few years before had dwindled and curdled into embattled paranoia or self-absorbed complacency.
So it’s fitting that THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, in its filmic iteration, comes across less like a call to arms and more like a grimly garish expression of its era’s “radical chic” — wish-fulfillment for frustrated former street-fighters as well as those born too late for (premature) praxis. It’s essentially a romantic fantasy of righteous violence, but the chickens who come home to roost here do so decked out in some pretty spectacular plumage. The movie’s politics may sound like Huey Newton, but its wardrobe is pure Foxy Brown.
And its soundtrack is pure, 1973-vintage Herbie Hancock. Although Hancock — who will be on hand for the HFA’s screening, hey — tended toward extended exercises in cosmic electr(on)ic jazz on the albums recorded shortly before he scored this film, a month after its premiere he released Headhunters, for which the whole operation was tightened up and hurtled forth into driving, hypnotic funk. The SPOOK soundtrack, while roughly in line with the latter approach, is also its own beast, comprising tense miniatures of techno-paranoia that rely on spare loops of low-end synth-gurgle and tetchily martial percussion, bisected by splashes of horn.
The brainy commandos on screen who rip off the army and paralyze the country retain a certain charm — that terrorism can sometimes look both ethical and heroic is always worth remembering — but the pleasures of the film’s style may prove the more permanent.
2/24 – 7PM
THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) dir. Ivan Dixon
w/ Herbie Hancock in person!
Harvard Film Archive
24 Quincy St.
$12 Special Event Tickets