The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

PG | 102 mins | Drama | September 1973

Director:

Ivan Dixon

Producers:

Ivan Dixon, Sam Greenlee

Cinematographer:

Michel Hugo

Editor:

Michael Kohn

Production Designer:

Leslie Thomas

Production Company:

Bokari Ltd.
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HISTORY

The picture’s title refers to both a derogatory epithet for African Americans and a nickname for government intelligence agents. At an early point in the film, the black candidates for admission to the intelligence agency joke that they are “the first spooks to be spooks for the CIA.” The onscreen credits for Cliff Coleman and Charles Washburn read: “Production manager/Assistant director.” The ending credits contain the following written acknowledgment: "The producers are grateful to Mayor Richard G. Hatcher and the people of Gary, Indiana for their cooperation in the production of this film."
       The best-selling, award-winning novel on which the film was based was the first written by Sam Greenlee, an African-American author who had served with the U.S. Information Agency for several years in the early 1960s. Although the film is largely faithful to the novel, in the book it is clearer that “Dan Freeman” dies at the end, whereas in the film, he is only shown clutching his wounded side and drinking a toast to the African statues on his coffee table. Also, in the novel, the riot is incited by the police killing a black teenager who is only a loitering youth, not a drug dealer.
       In Feb 2004, LAT reported that Greenlee, who had written a screenplay based on his novel shortly after its publication, spent several years attempting to get it produced, but it was not until he met African-American actor-director Ivan Dixon that he was able to find a partner. Greenlee hoped that actor Clarence Williams III, of the popular television show The Mod Squad , would star in the film project, but the ... More Less

The picture’s title refers to both a derogatory epithet for African Americans and a nickname for government intelligence agents. At an early point in the film, the black candidates for admission to the intelligence agency joke that they are “the first spooks to be spooks for the CIA.” The onscreen credits for Cliff Coleman and Charles Washburn read: “Production manager/Assistant director.” The ending credits contain the following written acknowledgment: "The producers are grateful to Mayor Richard G. Hatcher and the people of Gary, Indiana for their cooperation in the production of this film."
       The best-selling, award-winning novel on which the film was based was the first written by Sam Greenlee, an African-American author who had served with the U.S. Information Agency for several years in the early 1960s. Although the film is largely faithful to the novel, in the book it is clearer that “Dan Freeman” dies at the end, whereas in the film, he is only shown clutching his wounded side and drinking a toast to the African statues on his coffee table. Also, in the novel, the riot is incited by the police killing a black teenager who is only a loitering youth, not a drug dealer.
       In Feb 2004, LAT reported that Greenlee, who had written a screenplay based on his novel shortly after its publication, spent several years attempting to get it produced, but it was not until he met African-American actor-director Ivan Dixon that he was able to find a partner. Greenlee hoped that actor Clarence Williams III, of the popular television show The Mod Squad , would star in the film project, but the “offer to Williams didn’t pan out.” The article further noted that Greenlee and Dixon went on to raise “most of the film’s $1.1 million budget from independent black investors.”
       As noted by the onscreen credits and contemporary sources, the picture was shot entirely on location in Gary, IN. According to a 20 Jan 2004 NYT article, the filmmakers had wanted to shoot in Chicago, the story’s setting, but were denied permission by then-mayor Richard Daley, who reportedly “hated” Greenlee’s novel.
       The film was controversial upon its release. Although the DVD print viewed began with the United Artists logo, the MPHPD reviewer of the theatrical release commented on "the obviously apprehensive distributor (there's no UA logo preceding the screen title)." While often critical of the film's pacing and technical attributes, most reviewers praised the film as powerful and timely, with Vincent Canby of NYT calling it "a mixture of passion, humor, hindsight, prophecy, prejudice and reaction."
       A 7 Nov 1973 Var news item reported that UA had not yet decided if it would distribute the picture in the U.K., because of its “questionable” box-office prospects, although the film was “doing well in the U.S., playing largely to black audiences.” According to modern sources, the picture received limited distribution, which Dixon and Greenlee blamed on pressure by the U.S. government on UA to withdraw the film from theaters, due to its incendiary subject matter. In the 2004 NYT article, Greenlee related that “he showed only the action scenes to United Artists, which agreed to distribute the film thinking it would be the usual blaxploitation fare.” However, according to Greenlee, “‘When they saw the final cut, they went up the wall.’” According to the 2004 LAT article, Greenlee and Dixon eventually bought the rights to the film back from UA but could not find another theatrical distributor, nor could they find a video distributor. In early 2004, the film was restored and released on DVD by Obsidian Home Entertainment, which the NYT article noted was established “to revive black films of particular interest.” More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
24 Sep 1973
p. 4625.
Cue
24 Sep 1973.
---
Daily Variety
2 Oct 1973.
---
Daily Variety
16 Oct 1973.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
21 Dec 1973
Section C, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
19 Dec 1973.
---
Los Angeles Times
28 Feb 2004.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
3 Oct 1973.
---
New York Times
22 Sep 1973
p. 18.
New York Times
11 Nov 1973
Section II, p. 11.
New York Times
20 Jan 2004.
---
Variety
3 Oct 1973
p. 14.
Variety
7 Nov 1973.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
Assoc prod
WRITERS
Scr
PHOTOGRAPHY
Cam op
2d asst cam
Key grip
Dolly grip
Best boy
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Asst ed
Asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Props
Props
COSTUMES
MUSIC
SOUND
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
MAKEUP
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
Prod mgr
Prod coord
Scr supv
Casting
Casting
Post prod supv
Prod asst
Prod asst
STAND INS
Stunt gaffer
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee (London and New York, 1969).
AUTHOR
DETAILS
Release Date:
September 1973
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 21 September 1973
Copyright Claimant:
United Artists Corp.
Copyright Date:
17 August 1973
Copyright Number:
LP42801
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Duration(in mins):
102
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Worried about his re-election campaign, Senator Gil Hennington courts the “black vote” by challenging the CIA to become integrated. The agency grudgingly responds by recruiting forty African Americans who undergo weeks of psychological testing, athletic training and classes in subjects such as bomb-making and the formation of underground guerrilla organizations. Because the general, the agency’s director, finds the idea of integration distasteful, he is reassured by his right-hand man, Carstairs, who believes that the class will flunk. Carstairs does not count on the perseverance of former social worker Dan Freeman, however, who keeps a low profile while achieving the highest marks. The other candidates are baffled by Freeman, who angers them by raising the grading curve and by not subscribing to their notions of middle-class success. Freeman refuses to socialize with his fellow students, instead rendezvousing with a prostitute, who is intrigued when he states that she looks like an elegant Dahomey queen from ancient Africa. Freeman also has a girl friend, Joy, although eventually Joy informs Freeman that she is marrying someone else, as she craves the material success that Freeman disparages. Five years pass as Freeman works at the CIA, first in the Xerox room as the “top secret reproduction center section chief,” and then as the general’s aide, in order to showcase the agency’s integration. One day, Freeman lunches with the general, who compliments him on being “a credit to your race.” Freeman humbly accepts the general’s racist praise, much to the silent ire of the black waiter serving them, and agrees when the general states that blacks must serve their country in order to bridge the ... +


Worried about his re-election campaign, Senator Gil Hennington courts the “black vote” by challenging the CIA to become integrated. The agency grudgingly responds by recruiting forty African Americans who undergo weeks of psychological testing, athletic training and classes in subjects such as bomb-making and the formation of underground guerrilla organizations. Because the general, the agency’s director, finds the idea of integration distasteful, he is reassured by his right-hand man, Carstairs, who believes that the class will flunk. Carstairs does not count on the perseverance of former social worker Dan Freeman, however, who keeps a low profile while achieving the highest marks. The other candidates are baffled by Freeman, who angers them by raising the grading curve and by not subscribing to their notions of middle-class success. Freeman refuses to socialize with his fellow students, instead rendezvousing with a prostitute, who is intrigued when he states that she looks like an elegant Dahomey queen from ancient Africa. Freeman also has a girl friend, Joy, although eventually Joy informs Freeman that she is marrying someone else, as she craves the material success that Freeman disparages. Five years pass as Freeman works at the CIA, first in the Xerox room as the “top secret reproduction center section chief,” and then as the general’s aide, in order to showcase the agency’s integration. One day, Freeman lunches with the general, who compliments him on being “a credit to your race.” Freeman humbly accepts the general’s racist praise, much to the silent ire of the black waiter serving them, and agrees when the general states that blacks must serve their country in order to bridge the cultural cap between the races. The next week, Freeman informs the general that in the spirit of serving his country, he is quitting the CIA to be a social worker in Chicago’s southside ghetto. Freeman assures the general that he will pass along what he has learned, and soon is in Chicago being briefed by Perkins, another member of the Social Service Foundation. Perkins warns Freeman that they have a difficult job with the King Cobras, a notorious gang, but Freeman informs him that he used to be a Cobra under the name of Turk. Unknown to anyone at the CIA, or to any of Freeman’s closest friends, Freeman has intended all along to learn as much as possible from the intelligence agency, then use that knowledge to organize, train and equip black freedom fighters. Although Freeman genuinely cares about the neighborhood’s young people, encouraging them to finish school and avoid drugs, he quickly initiates his plan by contacting Do-Daddy Dean, Stud Davis and Pretty Willie, the three leaders of the Cobras. The Cobras are skeptical of Freeman’s offer to train them to “mess with whitey,” but soon are participating in his classes on judo, marksmanship and other skills. Although Willie scorns Freeman’s use of gasoline and glass bottles to make bombs, Freeman explains that a guiding principle of an underground guerrilla organization is to exist simply with items readily available. Freeman uses Stud’s natural mathematical abilities to train him as a sniper, while he instructs Willie, a writer, to head their propaganda unit. Freeman also persuades Willie, who is sensitive about his light skin, to head a group of similarly light-skinned gang members in a bank robbery, which Freeman knows will be blamed on Caucasian bandits, as white policemen do not think black criminals are capable of committing organized crimes. With their outfit funded by the haul from the bank, Freeman instructs Do-Daddy to institute training of gangs in other cities. Meanwhile, Freeman has renewed his friendship with Peter "Daws" Dawson, a former college buddy who has become a police detective. Still maintaining his cover, Freeman works with Daws at cleaning up the ghetto and Joy, impressed by his stature as a wealthy social worker, dates him despite her marriage. In the next stage in his plan, Freeman organizes a heist at the national guard armory, from which the gang steals automated weapons and explosives. One night, while discussing philosophy with Do-Daddy, Freeman explains that “in guerrilla warfare, the winning is in not losing,” and that their main aim is to “fight whitey to a standstill,” thereby forcing the white power structure to chose between “occupying” the ghettos or fighting foreign wars. The time for action comes that summer, when tempers flare along with the heat. Two policemen gun down a young black drug dealer, Shorty Duncan, and a crowd storms the streets in protest. Daws, Freeman and a contingent of black policemen and officials attempt to calm the masses, but when belligerent white policemen bring in German shepherds, the crowd goes wild and a riot begins. After three days of chaos, Freeman verbally jousts with Daws, who insists that law and order must be maintained, although Freeman protests that you cannot cage people like animals and not expect them to revolt. The national guard is brought in, but late that night, Freeman and his men invade a radio station and, proclaiming themselves to be the Black Freedom Fighters of North America, announce that they will blow up the mayor’s office as the first shot in their “war of liberation.” Freeman, calling himself “Uncle Tom,” warns the national guard that they must leave, but soon after, Col. Evans, the unit’s leader, boasts that they will stay until order is restored. Freeman’s men kidnap Evans and force him to take LSD, after which the drug-addled colonel makes a fool of himself bicycling down the street in his underwear. A series of hit-and-run sniper and bombing attacks by the gang brings the guard and police to their knees, and the president calls in a brigade of the 82nd Airborne. The general and Carstairs, in Chicago to observe, postulate that the guerrillas are headed by Russian Communists, and that once the leader is killed, the black agitators will dissipate. The general’s mistress, the Dahomey queen, finds out about the CIA’s plan to assassinate “Uncle Tom,” and alerts Freeman, who she suspects is involved with the Freedom Fighters. Freeman, who is aware of the CIA’s strategy of eliminating the head of an underground organization, has prepared his men to continue their mission if he or any other leader is killed. Soon after, Freeman quarrels with Joy, who declares that the Freedom Fighters are ruining life for blacks who are attempting to get ahead peacefully. Freeman’s heated support for the guerrillas makes Joy suspicious, and she informs Daws of her concerns. Investigating, Daws recognizes that the voice behind the “Uncle Tom” broadcasts is actually that of Freeman and one night, surprises him at his apartment. Leveling his gun at his friend, Daws castigates him for his violence, but Freeman protests that it is the only way for blacks to achieve freedom. Freeman urges Daws to join him but Daws refuses, and when Freeman attacks him, they struggle for the gun. Freeman succeeds in stabbing Daws to death but Daws fires one shot, wounding Freeman seriously. After changing his clothes to hide his injury, Freeman calls Willie, Do-Daddy and Stud to remove Daws’s body, and the trio is stunned that he could kill his own best friend. Freeman reminds them that the 82nd Airborne has many black soldiers whom they will be forced to kill, and that they have to do whatever is required to promote freedom. After the Cobras leave with Daws’s corpse, Freeman sits in agony, but then offers a toast upon hearing a radio report that the president has declared a state of national emergency due to the uprisings of black guerrillas in large cities throughout the country. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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