Monday, 1 February 2016

UPTIGHT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Blacklisted 40s Noir Director updates John Ford classic "The Informer" from the Irish "troubles" to post-Martin Luther King assassination Cleveland.

Uptight (1968)
Dir. Jules Dassin
Scr. Jules Dassin, Ruby Dee, Julian Mayfield
Nvl. Liam O'Flaherty
Starring: Julian Mayfield, Max Julien, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Raymond St. Jacques, Ruby Dee, Roscoe Lee Browne, Frank Silvera, Juanita Moore, Robert DoQui

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Liam O'Flaherty's classic 1925 novel was the basis for his cousin John Ford's immortal 1935 film The Informer, the simple, powerful story about an alcoholic cellar-dwelling brute in the Rebel-cause who betrays his best-friend to the authorities during the Irish War of Independence. Uptight is a 1968 remake by blacklisted film noir director Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City, Night and the City) faithfully transplanting O'Flaherty's story to the civil rights revolutionary movement in America by replacing the burgeoning Irish Republican Army with a fictionalized rendering of the Black Panthers in Cleveland.

To say Uptight is a forgotten masterwork of 60s/70s American Cinema would not, in spite of its lower-budget pedigree and a few bits of roughness around the edges, be an exaggeration. It's an endlessly fascinating, evocative take on the tragic implications of Martin Luther King's assassination amongst African Americans who chose violence to meet the injustices of the "Ruling" class, diametrically opposing King's peaceful actions (which, of course, were met with violence).

Dassin, the American son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, had long-dreamed of setting the book in just this fashion and miraculously managed to successfully pitch the property to Paramount Pictures during the rich "Easy Riders Raging Bulls" period wherein the artist/inmates were briefly allowed to run the studio/asylums. Alas, the film appears to have been barely released and has indeed been largely forgotten.

Dassin's greatest successes as a filmmaker were to carefully blend legendary producer Mark Hellinger's heavy-duty combo of gritty location work with carefully matched studio art direction. Fleeing the House of Un-American Activities for his involvement in the Communist Party, he carried on this same tradition in Europe and made the heist film Rififi, inarguably one of the greatest crime pictures in the history of French Cinema.

With Uptight, Dassin assembled an absolute dream team with impeccable results.

In addition to a cast of America's greatest African American actors of the time (or any time), Dassin was blessed with a rich script he co-wrote with the film's Black stars Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield, stunningly gritty cinematography on the mean streets of Cleveland by Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront, 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker), first-rate production design by Alexandre Trauner (Children of Paradise, Port of Shadows, The Man Who Would Be King) that astonishingly matched studio sets with the locations, the expert cutting of editor Robert Lawrence (Spartacus, El Cid, Fiddler on the Roof), costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge (1974's The Great Gatsby, Network, The Rose) and last, but never, ever least, a GREAT musical score by Booker T. Jones, including his massive 1962 Stax Records hit "Green Onions". (If you don't know Jones, or at the very least, Booker T. and the MGs, then you know NOTHING.)

Eschewing the redemptive approach chosen by John Ford and his screenwriter Dudley Nichols in 1935, Dassin and team use O'Flaherty's underlying literary material to drag us through a dramatically tragic and stylistically (albeit borderline) example of neorealism which is shaken (not stirred) with dollops of expressionism. Other than a sentimental death for a traitor on the steps of a church and the updated setting, Uptight is strangely familiar to the Ford picture (at least on a simple narrative level).

After a gorgeously edited montage of the immediate Memphis aftermath to King's assassination (all in glorious, grainy colour) and expertly blended with scenes introducing the anger of the Cleveland Black-Panther-like revolutionaries, we plunge immediately into the familiar tale (which won Victor McLaglen his 1936 Best Acting Oscar as the doomed informer Gypo Nolan). His counterpart in Dassin's film is Tank (Julian Mayfield, making a phenomenal acting debut, ignored not only by the 1969 Oscars, but like the film, most everyone).

The burly booze-hound is drunkenly responsible for a major screw-up during an arms heist. His best friend Johnny Wells (Max Julien) is identified as the ringleader and murderer of a security guard. Johnny's parter Rick (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) and head revolutionary B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques, adorned stylishly in a Nehru jacket) are so disgusted with Tank's repeated incompetence that they kick him out of the organization.

Since Tank lost his job at a steel mill, Laurie (Ruby Dee), the love of his life is forced to prostitute herself. Cut loose by the revolutionaries, he's got little to live for and is especially susceptible to the influence of the silver-tongued gay police informant Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne). Seeing the reward money for Johnny Wells as a way out for himself and Laurie, Tank does the unthinkable and rats out his old friend.

Ah, but just one little drink is needed.

Instead of using the dough as a nest-egg for flight and a better life for Laurie, Tank is pumped up into thinking that for once in his life, he can be seen as a "big man", and he trolls from bar to bar, buying multiple rounds for himself and all his "friends". All he has left is $20 to put in a collection plate during Johnny's funeral (his old pal's been gunned down by the cops thanks to Tank's loose lips).

The inevitable demise awaits him - not on the steps of a church, but upon the slag heaps of a steel mill.

The picture is a heartbreaker, to be sure, but even though it's a period piece, Uptight is as resonant to race relations in America today as it was in the 60s/70s. A good part of this is thanks to Dassin's dazzling direction. The opening heist scene is tension-filled and reminiscent of the "silent" heist in Rififi, the dirty streets of Cleveland seem as foul as those in The Naked City and the violence as raw and unyielding as that seen in Brute Force. The locations and production design, so beautifully lit, pulsate with realism of the neo and expressionistic variety - everything from tenement back alleys to a shuttered old bowling alley (and, of course, the slag heaps of Cleveland). You'll also be treated to a horrifying distorted mirror sequence where Tank drunkenly stumbles amidst freakish bourgeois White folk - a thoroughly unforgettable series of shots.

Dassin's montages are also a thing of foul beauty. Not unlike Slavko Vorkapich's legendary montages, they're infused with the weight of social injustice and the sadness inherent in a world where slavery is still slavery, but with a different name - the status quo, a world in which one of the film's characters opines: "a nigger is still just a nigger".


Uptight is available on a bare-bones Blu-Ray from Olive Films, but the transfer gorgeously reproduces the film's glorious grain and dapples of saturated colour. Given that most people have not seen this important work about the African American revolutionary movement (rooted in Irish literature and remade from a great John Ford masterpiece), it's well worth buying - for those who care about cinema.

If you buy UPTIGHT or any of other related Jules Dassin/John Ford films directly from the Amazon links below, you'll be supporting the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner: