Grindhouse Classics : “Sheba, Baby”

Posted: April 5, 2011 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Not so long ago we took a look at Pam Grier’s finest hour, Coffy, and I thought it would be fun to follow it up quickly with a re-watch, and subsequent review, of a flick that’s generally considered to be one of her more uninspired starring turns, namely late exploitation king William Girdler’s 1975 offering Sheba, Baby.

A lot of the criticism this flick comes in for is frankly pretty well-founded — far from being “Hotter’n Coffy” and “Meaner’n Foxy Brown” as the tag line on the poster claims, this is a pretty tame and formulaic affair, with Pam pretty much just running through the motions. Here she portrays one of her fairly standard characters, a tough-as-nails Chicago P.I. named Sheba Shayne who comes home to Louisville, Kentucky (where Girdler shot most of his early work) when her dad’s neighborhood loan operation is vandalized and the old man himself attacked by some vicious hoods trying to run him out of business  who work for a mid-level loan shark/all-around operator named Pilot (the always-reliable D’Urville Martin) who in turn works for a higher authority who goes by the name of Shark (Dick Merrifield) and is busily consolidating control of all the various rackets in the black neighborhoods around town. Honest businessmen like Sheba’s pop and his partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker, with whom Sheba subsequently rekindles an on-again/off-again relationship) hasn’t got a chance when the crime lords decide that legit loan operations are standing in the way of the 20-30% vig they can charge desperate people who have no legit alternatives to take their custom to.

Along the way Pam goes undercover and tries to lure the crime bosses in with her always-alluring feminine wiles, kicks a lot of ass, takes a bunch f names, tussles with lazy, crooked cops who are in for a piece of the action — you know the drill. It’s not like she’s gonna lose in the end or anything, and even though there’s a twist of pathos added when her dad gets killed about halfway through the flick, you know that sooner or later (in fact, in just about 90 minutes’ time), our gal Sheba is bound to bring down the whole operation.

Sadly, Sheba, Baby is pretty light on the mayhem and violence front, with what few killings there are being relatively bloodless affairs, and Pam’s ample — uhhhhmmm — assets are more or less obscured throughout with only some almost-but-not-quite nudity in a couple of spots, but I still don’t think this thing would garner the PG rating it got at the time if it were released in this day and age (to those who say that you can get away with more in the movies these days I humbly beg to differ — plenty of PG-rated flicks in the 1970s had more sex and violence that many contemporary R-rated features).

On the technical front, Girdler, who would go on to give us such notable exploitation classics as Grizzly and Day Of The Animals before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for an upcoming film project at the tragically young age of 30, and who co-wrote the script for this feature, struggles a bit. He doesn’t seem to have mastered anything beyond basic point-and-shoot filming techniques at this point in his all-too-brief career, and the editing is uniformly amateurish throughout, which especially detracts from some key action sequences.

All in all, though, I can’t be too hard on Sheba, Baby. Even in a by-the-numbers effort like this one, Grier still oozes charisma and bad-ass sex appeal and can carry a film on attitude and poise alone. She shines more brightly when she’s got better material to work with, of course, but even her substandard fare usually gives her enough (even if it’s only just enough) to sink her acting chops into, and her natural dynamism has a way of carrying even the most hackneyed scripts further than they deserve to go. Simply put, she’s essentially the only reason to see this movie, but she’s more than enough.

I guess I can’t really recommend Sheba, Baby to anyone but the most diehard Pam fans or blaxploitation completists, but it’s still got more going for it than most of what comes out of the Hollywood meat grinder these days and certainly isn’t any more formulaic than, say, the latest Michael Bay blockbuster. It hasn’t got the soul of a Coffy or even a Foxy Brown, but it’s still not a bad way to spend an hour and a half of your life by any means.

Sheba, Baby is available on DVD from MGM, who see to have acquired nearly all of the old American International Pictures catalog,  as part of its Soul Cinema line. It’s pretty much a bare-bones release, but the widescreen anamorphic transfer and mono sound are perfectly serviceable. It’s also playing all this month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite TV systems, and is certainly worth a look if there’s nothing else on TV — which, let’s be honest, there pretty much never is.

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