It's April 8, 1968, four days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Police in inner cities across the country are gearing up for some potential nasty retribution – especially from the growing militant groups. A particularly volatile hood in the Cleveland area is hanging by an emotional thread. A raid on a gun manufacturing warehouse results in the death of a night watchman. The grenade pin has been pulled. The cops offer cash bounty to anyone who'll rat on the whereabouts of the trigger man, Johnny Wells (Max “Mack” Julien). Tank, a drunken over-the-hill ex-steelworker with a violent past, was supposed to be in on the gun heist – but was too juiced to follow through. Ostracized by the take-no-prisoners radicals, his brain pickled and with a yearning to get back in the good graces with Laurie (his sometime prostitute/sometime girlfriend) suddenly makes that blood money look awfully good...So, hey – wait a minute. Doesn't this sound vaguely familiar? Specifically if you're a Baby Boomer member of WOR-TV's Million Dollar Movie club (and thus privy to the RKO library). Yeah – this is kinda like that Vic McLaglen flick, the one where he won an Oscar. The one directed by John Ford. Neither rip-off nor homage, this is 1968's UPTIGHT (now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment) – a clever and incredibly progressive official remake of the 1935 IRA drama The Informer.
UPTIGHT pulls no punches in its laid-bare tapestry of the then happening culture, notably the hostile political climate. It's actually amazing how seamlessly Liam O'Flaherty's controversial novel fits the late-1960s African-American experience. Mercifully, no 2014 idiot mogul has thought to remake the '68 version as a time-capsule allegory; you couldn't do better than the paranoid original (filmed on-location as the real-life tense situations were actually unraveling).
UPTIGHT has some great credentials. It was produced and directed by Jules Dassin, who coauthored the screenplay with costars Julian Mayfield (Tank) and Ruby Dee (Laurie). The dialog jolts with the impact of an icepick in the brain (ouch, now that I think of it, that probably smarts). “We’ll show you what Black Power means,” is the credo the revolutionaries eagerly offer to demonstrate in a defiantly non-peaceful protest. When a blubbering Tank approaches the group's opportunistic leader, former professor Booker Thompson (a snarling, slimy Raymond St. Jacques) and Jeannie – Johnny’s sister (a bitch-slapping Janet MacLachlan), he begs for readmittance. “I got no place to go,” he sobs. “Then die” is their touching adaptation of Eldridge Cleaver’s “part of the problem” solution. When confronted with the choice of turning informer, Tank is haunted by the question, “How much for the head of a brother?” (The answer, as it turns out, is $1000).
With a dynamite cast which also includes Juanita Moore (as Johnny's mother), Frank Silvera (as a Reverend determined to keep the peace with his “keep it cool” demeanor), James McEachin (the era's ubiquitous black-of-all-trades character actor), and, most prominently Roscoe Lee Browne as Clarence the corrupt tempter for The Man (seen as an ultimate turncoat/outsider from both sides - black and gay), UPTIGHT is a fascinating curio/obscurity sure to have perplexed viewers wondering “Why the hell isn't this movie better known?” Of course, to paraphrase Woody Allen, that's what makes home video collecting the most fun an enclosed group can have with their clothes on.
As one might suspect from the snippets hinted at above, UPTIGHT isn’t as simple as good and bad, or, more precisely, black and white. The remarkable Mayfield (here making his screen debut) is one sad, dead-brown-eyed confused muthafucka. Furthermore, Tank's disreputable, heinous action is no more or less reprehensible than those of the revolutionaries he betrays. And he sweats more than Edmond O'Brien doing a telephone scene. The egos and backstabbing of Thompson and his organization recall the worst of the self-serving likes of Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam hate mongers (additionally making everyone who was around in those days grateful that we all actually survived that bullshit).
The point of UPTIGHT is that, from Tank on down to Thompson, Laurie and Clarence – EVERYONE's a sell-out, and nobody gets out alive (either literally or figuratively).
With lefty, righty and whitey all on display, it's interesting to touch on Dassin's take on the latter. Teddy (Michael Baseleon), the goody-goody “T-bone white guy,” who genuinely wants to avoid violence is sneered and jeered at as just another “conscious-stricken liberal.” And he is. The phony aura of “I want to feel your pain” is further brought out during Tank's soused celebration at a barrio arcade – his solo partying interrupted by a bunch of asshole Caucasian slumming rich folk.
Dassin, of course, is no novice when it comes to being an outsider. A rising force at MGM during the 1940s, his leftist leanings put him smack-dab in center of HUAC’s Hollywood blacklist (where he was named by friendly witnesses Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle). Fleeing to Europe, the writer-director made a spectacular comeback with the 1954 French cross-over smash Rififi. Natch, when one has the ability to make barrels of money, blacklisting can be grayed, or even erased. And that's what happened to Dassin after the 1960 release of Never on Sunday. The 1964 caper flick Topkapi permanently welcomed him back to English-language fold with arm-outstretched crocodile-tear-stained cries of “We missed you” shamelessness.
Contrary to Tinsel Town mythology, UPTIGHT is no low-budget pic. Again, all one has to do is check the credits – and their praiseworthy on-screen results. The production design was by the great Alexander Trauner (How to Steal a Million, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes); the Technicolor cinematography by Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront, Splendor in the Grass) and the cut-to-the-chase editing by Robert Lawrence (Spartacus, El Cid). Not too shabby. The one aspect of UPTIGHT that has survived its nearly half-century of anonymity is the music – a legendary, bad-ass score by Booker T and the MGs.
Another fallacy is UPTIGHT's being labeled the first blaxploitation flick. In the words of Ira Gershwin, it ain't necessarily so. The movie is a bona fide stand-alone dramatic thriller; while it does contain sensational elements, there's nothing exploitative about it. And I'm not throwing its relationship to a time-honored classic up as evidence; 1972's Cool Breeze IS a blaxploitation pic (and yet another MGM remake of The Asphalt Jungle). If anything, UPTIGHT is neo-noir – a sub-genre infinitely more applicable to Dassin's mean-streets output (Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves' Highway and Night and the City – titles whose narrative implication could all be interchangeable with UPTIGHT).
Paramount, in hindsight, may have thought differently. A bit frightened at the effect that the movie might have on 1968 audiences, they didn't push the picture too hard – instead choosing to unleash directly to the nabes and drive-ins as one of their week-only (albeit outstanding) double features. It top-halved Otto Preminger's wacky druggie gangster flick Skiddoo (which, up until this inspired pairing, seemed doomed to be shelved in the studio's vault – deemed unreleasable by key suits). Thanks to Olive Films, collectors can now recreate this stupendous two-fer (which I have already done, to much-appreciated applause).
The blaxploitation tag came post-Shaft, when throughout the mid-1970s, the Gulf+Western concern continually bicycled UPTIGHT to grindhouses across the nation – often in the company of Riot (a 1969 William Castle-produced Jim Brown prison pic, which IS closer to helping spearhead the series of seventies bloody pulps of the Coffy/Hell up in Harlem/3 the Hard Way/Blacula ilk).
Olive's Blu-Ray of UPTIGHT is a gritty, neon-flashing delight. Kaufman's nocturnal imagery is a CSI photographer's dream come true. It's confounding how he managed to reap so many rich, vibrant colors amidst the rain-streaked real-life ghetto sidewalks. The glossy high-definition 1080p transfer doesn't hurt. Ditto the mono audio with that pulsing Booker T soundtrack.
There's a perennial modernity about UPTIGHT that defies its age. Whether it’s in visual appearance, speech, attitude or music, UPTIGHT demands that you catch your breath at intervals, and shake your noggin in disbelief that this was filmed in the sixties. The final verbal assessment to be gleaned is not that “it's a wow,” but just simply “Wow!”
UPTIGHT. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [DTS-HD]. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. UPC: 887090042604 ; Cat #: OF426. SRP: $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090042505; Cat #: OF425. SRP: $24.95.