By Scott Ross
In reviewing the Jules Dassin-directed Up Tight at the time of its 1968 release, Roger Ebert complained that adapting The Informer to a contemporary black revolutionary context was a graft that didn’t take, arguing that Liam O’Flaherty’s novel did not center on IRA activities but rather on the guilt of the protagonist.
But that, it seems to me, was too literal a reading for so freewheeling a project as this. Think of Up Tight less as a “remake” or even as a strict transliteration of The Informer and more as a variation on it, and you get closer, I believe, to the spirit of the thing.
O’Flaherty’s book was written in 1925 but set in 1922, following the Irish Civil War; by placing Up Tight in the black ghettos of Cleveland four days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., the filmmakers were getting at something very similar, in expressive terms, to the raw emotions the Irish experienced following partition. (The picture begins with footage of the civil rights leader’s Atlanta funeral.) King’s symbolism within black America, pro or con, cannot be understated, any less than the grief and frustration and rage that exploded after his murder.
A killing, moreover, which many now believe was carried out (or at best, sanctioned) by the United States’ shadow government. Scoffers ask why, with Dr. King’s effectiveness as a public figure largely blunted by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Establishment would bother. If we may dismiss as ludicrous the idea that a bill solves all the social ills it is meant to address — and we have only to look at the state of things now to do so with impunity — we must also ask: What was King’s focus when he was assassinated? Poverty, and war; specifically, the war in Vietnam. The powers directing the official powers may tolerate social agitation on matters of race or gender or sexuality, but when you question the very structures that hold the working and underclasses in poverty and those dictating what the historian Charles Beard called America’s “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” then something must be done about you… and something duly was. That this did not occur to the makers of Up Tight in 1968 is not a grievous fault; the picture rides on so much that was in the air at the time that it may surely be forgiven for missing a philosophical nuance here and there.
Not that Up Tight is exactly subtle. Its revolutionaries’ dialogue in particular has a blunt feel that places as much distance between us and the picture now, in the second decade of the 21st century, as lay between the 1935 John Ford/Dudley Nichols adaptation and Up Tight itself in the late 1960s. Indeed, if anything the latter feels even further in the past. The picture’s concerns, however, were very much in the present when it was written, filmed and released; race riots had broken out in 1964, accelerated between 1966 and 1968 and hit special prominence in ’68 with Watts, with more to come in the early 1970s. It should be remembered as well that weapons manufacturers, the police and the NRA only got concerned with enforcing strict gun control when the Black Panthers talked of buying arms, or went out of doors with them. There were many then who believed a racial war was not merely possible but inevitable. Wither, without those endlessly articulated white fears, a Charlie Manson?
For my own part, I find the adaptation of O’Flaherty, by the picture’s star Julian Mayfield, its featured actress Ruby Dee, and Dassin himself, not only apt but cunning. Revolution was in the air then (as it damn well should be now, and shows few signs of being, save on the progressive left, liberals content to put on pink caps, denounce a monstrous egotist, snipe at that left, and call themselves — presumably after watching The Force Awakens once too often — the “Resistance.”) And, pace Roger Ebert, revolutionary activities are very much a part of the novel, or why does O’Flaherty’s anti-hero Gyppo Nolan betray his friend Frankie Nolan in the first place? Gyppo is thrown out of the IRA for his inability to murder a Black and Tan as ordered, just as Up Tight’s protagonist, Tank Williams (Mayfield) is ejected from his revolutionary cell for his failure to assist in a robbery of arms that ends with the killing of a white security guard and the legal implication of Tank’s best friend.
Betrayal, as a dramatic subject, requires no civil war or even its possibility, although it is in a political sense that it is perhaps most easily grasped. The wages do seem to fluctuate, however: 30 pieces of silver in the age of Judas Iscariot became 20 pounds in 1922; by the time of Up Tight they were a thousand dollars. Today they must hover around the half-million mark. The amount hardly matters, of course; the sense of personal guilt in all three cases is where the drama lies. Like Frankie, Johnny Wells (Max Julien) is a fugitive, and Gyppo/Tank betrays his whereabouts to the police, leading directly to Johnny’s death. Tank is motivated in part by his love for Laurie (Ruby Dee) and his desire to get them both out of the poverty that has blighted their lives and the lives of her children, just as Gyppo commits his betrayal of Frankie to secure passage out of Ireland for himself and his love. And here the screenwriters of Up Tight up the ante, having the self-styled revolutionary leader B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques in an intelligent and coldly frightening performance) inform Tank that it was Johnny himself who recommended cutting his friend loose from what is called “the committee.” It is that sense of personal disloyalty (and we are never certain whether Johnny made that statement or not, although we would not be remiss in doubting it) that pushes Tank over the ethical edge into lethal stool-pigeonry.
In addition to the sometimes less-than-felicitous dialogue, Up Tight is saddled with occasional directorial flourishes that go horrendously wrong — I’m thinking in particular about the sequence in an over-lit arcade that is at once wildly theatrical and pictorially bizarre. A group of well-healed white liberals surrounds an inebriated Tank, begging to know when the revolution will take place. (One woman in particular seems, in her grinning, pleading fashion, to want to be a victim; it’s a peculiarly direct parody of the extremes of then-current white liberal guilt.) Tank is only too happy to spin an outrageous fantasy of dead telephone lines, beautiful black bank tellers informing their customers there is no money, and NASA moon-shots aborted by revolutionaries, and this outré sequence is capped by Tank and his avid listeners being reflected in fun-house mirrors, which puts all too blunt a point on the monologue’s satirical edge. Theatre of the Absurd meets filmmaking of the avant-garde school, and it’s that marriage, not the mating of O’Flaherty and late-‘60s revolution, that falls hideously flat.
Ebert in his contemporary review also faulted the sets by the redoubtable Alexandre Trauner, and the manner in which they were shot, by the splendid Boris Kaufman, complaining of the artificiality of the settings (he compared them, dismissively, to Catfish Row) and the extensive night shooting which, to him, rendered these sequences as somehow phony in comparison with the day shots of Cleveland’s steel mills, garbage dumps and earthworks. The critic forgot, or did not notice, that Up Tight is a story told largely at night, and for good reasons — intentions an aficionado of film noir would instantly understand, as they would also comprehend why so much of the outside action takes place in the rain that turns gutters into neon-illuminated garbage streams. Trauner’s contributions seem to me especially felicitous, particularly in Laurie’s ramshackle home and the dilapidated boarding house the embittered Tank simmers in and in the oppressive project where Johnny’s mother lives and which becomes the scene of the movie’s violent confrontation between its inhabitants and the Cleveland police. It should also be noted how well Booker T. Jones’ spare musical score (and occasional song) serves the picture, and how effective the animated titles by John and Faith Hubley are — although, oddly, their depictions of the young Tank and Johnny include a clear re-drafting of a famous 1960s Coca Cola ad featuring two young boys lying on their backs and, defying all laws of liquid gravity, sipping from glass soda bottles turned straight down and which, if you know it, may cause you to wonder how they got away without the image sans corporate lawsuit.
One of the more interesting curlicues in the narrative is the presence of a gay pusher and police informer called, variously, Clarence or Daisy, and played with amused panache by the marvelous Roscoe Lee Browne. The actor hardly underplays the character’s sexuality; indeed, when corrected by a white police commander over his use of the word “nigger” — the cop interjects, “Negro!” — a smiling Clarence replies, in those deliciously clipped tones of which Browne was a master, “No, sir. Nigger… stool pigeon… and faggot.” Yet, in spite of his elaborately (yet somehow tasteful) queer digs and the late presence of a somewhat hysterical young boyfriend, Browne’s Clarence is not nearly as contemptuously portrayed, or written, as any one of a phalanx of such figures cobbled up by white screenwriters, at the time and even much later. Clarence is no more despicable than Tank himself, or B.G., and considerably clearer in his conscience. Even when manhandled by B.G.’s enforcers, he displays no stereotypical, “feminine” cowardice. He stands up to it better than Tank does. One does wonder whether Browne had any input on the shaping of the role. An actor of exquisite dignity as well as diction — see The Liberation of L.B. Jones — he was himself gay, and I like to think he may have had some influence on the conception of Clarence who, while lounging about airily in a very brief bathrobe (and, incidentally, displaying a finely shaped pair of legs, as befits a former track star) never dips into caricature of the grotesque sort, all too often on display in movies of the period. If anything, he puts one of in mind of a slightly more flamboyant James Baldwin. (The blogger and critic Stephen Winter thinks the performance is a mesh of Baldwin and Jason Holliday, the subject of Shirley Clarke’s documentary A Portrait of Jason.)
In any event, Browne’s is one of the very few such performances that, far from making you — as is usual — cringe, instead cause you to relish every moment he’s on the screen.
Up Tight teems with familiar names, although not all of them attach to specifically named characters, either in the end credits or at the usually fulsome imdb.
The actress and trail-blazing black playwright Alice Childress (Trouble in Mind) is listed, for example, but in what role? (I suspect she’s the smiling street preacher exhorting her flock in the rain, but I can’t be certain.) Michael Baseleon, as the now un-wanted white activist Teddy, has a good scene arguing with B.G. and Robert DoQui gets a very good sequence as a street speaker, with which he does wonders. Juanita Moore shows up all too briefly as Johnny’s understanding mother,* and Dick Anthony Williams (billed as Richard) does splendidly by Corbin, whose essential empathy is subsumed by his revolutionary aims. Frank Silvera contributes a superb supporting performance as Kyle, the voice of moderation, overwhelmed by the manner in which non-violent resistance crumbles in the face of exploding impatience of the sort Langston Hughes foresaw in his poem “Harlem” (“Or does it explode?”) Max Julien gives his brief appearances as Johnny an openness of expression that veers believably from rage at Tank’s failure to abet the robbery to, later, a gentle sweetness of spirit that suggest less an idealized revolutionary icon than a fully rounded human being. Janet MacLachlan, alas, playing his sister (and B.G.’s wife) Jeannie, is given by the writers a single mode to express— sneering fury — and is unable to overcome its limitations. On the extreme other hand, St. Jacques, looking especially handsome in full beard, limns a chilling portrait of the revolutionary whose otherwise admirable zeal has mutated into a rigid ideology that brooks no exceptions and that cuts him off from normal human emotions. Weakness is anathema to him, betrayal unforgivable. Comes the revolution, you feel, and B.G. will begin lining up for execution anyone he believes is less than 100% pure.
We expect Dee to deliver the goods, and she does, most notably in the late sequence in which Tank confesses to Laurie his involvement in Johnny’s violent death, after which she beats and scratches at him, flailing with her hands and fingers in a fury borne of equal parts grief and outrage. But Julian Mayfield, who was both a playwright and a novelist in addition to his work as an actor, is revelatory as Tank, infinitely more varied and moving than Victor McLaglen, who won the 1935 Academy Award® for his portrayal of Gyppo Nolan but who all too often in his screen roles becomes both brawling and bellicose, snarling one moment and brayingly riant the next. As Mayfield plays him, Tank is a man alienated by his times: Unprepared for the revolutionary fervor his best friend revels in, destroyed by his dismissal first from the only thing he loved without reservation (the steel mills) and later by the one substitution for it he can find (the committee.) Like Gyppo Nolan, Tank’s emotions too run the gamut, but Mayfield is more controlled, even in extremis, than McLaglen, and displays an actorly palette that suggests, poignantly, how fine a movie actor we lost when Up Tight failed at the box office. His own revolutionary concerns, and the usual fascistic surveillance of him by the FBI, may well have curtailed any such hopes all on their own; but that we will never know what he might have accomplished is, as it is always is in these cases, heartbreaking.
While Up Tight is necessarily dated, it, like the equally inflammatory The Spook Who Sat by the Door — and unless we as a nation begin to address the appalling inequities and sheer racism of a system whose passive consent to atrocity and active murderousness toward non-Caucasians has, since at least the 1980s, grown increasingly systemic — may prove prophetic.
The dream can only be deferred for so long. The explosion is overdue.
*I’m reminded by the brevity of Moore’s role as Mrs. Wells by a remark made recently by, I think, Octavia Spencer, that winning an Oscar® actually diminishes one’s career: Producers who might offer a part to you, she says, decline because they think, holding a statuette, you won’t deign to take it. Or, perhaps, having been close to holding one: Moore, nominated for Imitation of Life in 1959, kept working into her 80s but never again in a role as important, or as showy.
Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross