|'); document.write(''); //-->|
Olive Films has once again dipped into the Paramount library for a high-pedigree title that shows up in a lot of film books but hasn't been seen in decades. A full year before "Easy Rider" officially brought counterculture rebellion and revolution to non-exploitation American films, Paramount released a show that accepted revolution as a given and portrayed a Black Panthers- like militant group in a positive light. It's possible that the studio thought the project had hip credibility - the cast list is a who's who of noted black actors and editor Robert Lawrence was known for Road Show movies like Lawrence of Arabia. Personnel and leadership turnover at studios being what it was, however, it's just as probable that the New York moneymen were unaware that the director of this political thriller was a blacklistee from the HUAC years two decades before.
In 1950 Jules Dassin was hounded out of America even as Fox's Darryl Zanuck tried to hide him from his superiors -- Zanuck even 'invented' an English production for the talented Dassin, the noir classic Night and the City. Barred from work in the U.S., Dassin was further harassed by the State Department, which managed to keep him from working in Europe for almost five years. His French crime thriller Rififi then hit an international home run and even saw screenings here in the states. But a couple of years later the American Legion successfully boycotted a Hollywood industry screening of Dassin's He Who Must Die. The director changed direction, hooked up with Greek star Melina Mercouri and bounced back with the racy comedy Never On Sunday, which was for a time the most profitable foreign film ever released in the U.S.
Still, how Uptight was given the green light remains a mystery. A fairly close remake of John Ford's The Informer, it was produced and co-written by the talented Ruby Dee, along with pre-eminent actor, writer, director and Civil Rights activist Julian Mayfield. The brief outline in wikipedia of Mayfield's eventful career makes us want to see his story turned into a movie. Julian Mayfield also stars in Uptight, taking the role originally played by Vicgtor McLaglen.
The film begins in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Revolutionary soldiers Johnny Wells and Rick (Max Julien & Ji-Tu Cumbuka) need their confederate Tank Williams (Julien Mayfield) but find him drunk and despondent. Johnny's raid on an arms storehouse goes bad and a guard is shot; the failure is blamed on the absence of the formidable Tank. The commander B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques) decides that Tank is unreliable and bars him from the group. Advisor Kyle (Frank Silvera) brings a white radical to a planning meeting but finds that the group has decided to reject white help, no matter what the source, and opt for violent action. Depressed and ostracized, Tank hears about a reward offered for the capture of Johnny from the gay police informant Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne). Further depressed that his girlfriend Laurie (Ruby Dee) has turned to prostitution to make ends meet, Tank informs on Johnny. Not long afterward, B.G.'s lieutenants note that Tank is on a spending spree in the bars. Tank tries to pass the blame onto Clarence but the militants can draw their own conclusions.
Uptight has little in common with Blaxsploitation films that would follow, not even the next year's Cotton Comes to Harlem. The humorless story is a straight tale of betrayal, a tragedy that sees the 'hero' beaten down by forces he can't control. Tank is a likeable but weak-minded fellow still bemoaning his lost steel-working job and his family live with Laurie and her kids. But that's all gone -- the shame of seeing Laurie sell her body, the terrible killing of MLK and the booze are more than enough to warp his judgment.
The depicts its unnamed black militant unit girding for all-out war, not exactly the kind of subject matter one expects from an American entertainment corporation. B.G., Johnny and the other guerillas consider themselves in a life & death struggle. They cut their ties to outside groups but do a poor job with internal security. Despite their claims to ruthlessness they let sentiment cloud their judgment: Tank has been a valuable soldier. Uptight is a much bleaker story than the John Ford film, which eventually makes its informant a tragic Christ figure that throws himself on the mercy of a Madonna figure. Tank's fate has no noble dimension.
Dassin was an old-school leftist sympathizer but always first a hardworking artist. He apparently got along well with his cast of motivated black actors and writers. Julien Mayfield plays his part as written without grasping for sympathy. Everyone else plays revolutionary hard cases, and the talented Ruby Dee a defiant victim of economic realities. The film has excellent production values, with plenty of night-for-night filming in a run-down urban setting. The famous film designer Alexandre Trauner art-directed French masterpieces and many features for Billy Wilder; his work is harder to spot because it fits in so well with the location shooting. The opening scenes of the Martin Luther King funeral look to be actual shots filmed for the movie. The expressive, colorful main titles were animated by John and Faith Hubley, artists that shared Jules Dassin's troubles with the blacklist.
The intended message of Uptight is that an outright race war is coming, that the unprecedented riots then taking place in places like Newark and the heightened militant presence of the Black Panthers are just the beginning of a wave of civil insurrection. Co-screenwriters Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield reflect the explosive reality of the times without resorting to outright fantasy or violent exploitation. After all, half of the country in 1968 wanted to be out of Vietnam and for more justice and liberty for America's minorities. Not even Nixon could handle the anti-war sentiment, but a concerted law enforcement crackdown soon overpowered the black militants resisting pressure by special police units and the FBI. Black militant organizers were murdered and others fled the country. The community groups were broken up and the ghettos 'pacified'.
Artistically Uptight is sort of a mixed bag. The authentic MLK funeral atmosphere doesn't quite mix with the melodramatic ups and downs of the original "Informer" plotline. We're asked to care for poor Tank Williams, but he comes off as both a loser and a weak link in the militant organization. By the time director Dassin gets to the final pursuit of Tank through the steel plant, the film resembles a daytime version of the final chase in Night and the City. The conclusion is a muted downer. Tank knows he can't get away and would probably just like a few friendly moments with his comrades before they cut him down. We never for a moment thought that the story was heading in any other direction but this one.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Uptight (often spelled as "Up Tight!") is a good HD encoding of a picture that has probably seen only a handful of screenings since 1968. The quality is excellent throughout, with the legendary cinematographer Boris Kaufman (L'atalante, 12 Angry Men) getting the most from the dank urban settings.
I wonder what kind of booking history Uptight had, considering how aware inner city theater owners must have been that ghetto tensions might boil over into violent vandalism without warning. It's interesting to discover that the score for is by Booker T. Jones, of "Booker T. and the M.G.'s". The music sounds very familiar, and thenl the very familiar signature tune "Green Onions" comes up This film might be its original source. I don't think that Uptight had much of a media presence, or radio D.J.'s would have been pointing out that fact. Yet the movie remains a quality artifact by politically committed filmmakers, during some particularly unstable years in America.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Uptight Blu-ray rates:
1. Looking for more insights on Uptight? I've been alerted to an Ebony article by writer Michael A. Gonzales, Uptight: 1st Blaxploitation Movie was a Baaad Mutha... Michael's blog is called Blackadelic Pop..
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.