Between Hay and Grass: The Cowboys (1972)

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By Scott Ross

There was probably no adequate way a movie could be made of William Dale Jennings’ 1971 novel The Cowboys that would not have been a diminution of the material, in 1972 or even now. Possibly someone in Europe, where audiences are less prudish, and don’t go insane at the suggestion that children are anything less than entirely innocent (or neuter) could have managed it better — especially in Italy, which had at the time a feel for Western authenticity and a notable lack of squeamishness. Certainly an artist, of any nationality, might have made a noble stab at the thing, but if the man you hire for the job is Mark Rydell, the last thing you’re interested in is art.

And the problem isn’t merely the sudden and horrible (if, in context, wholly explicable) intrusion into the narrative of a violence that, in a picture populated by adults, would not have raised a dust cloud but which, as encountered in this story, set some critics’ hair on fire… although that would have been enough of a challenge. Nor is the difficulty wholly or even substantially to do with the inevitable difficulties attendant on adapting prose as rich and masterful as Jennings’; one accepts that a movie is not a book, however much one may regret the loss either of authorial voice or of detail. (The Cowboys is not a lengthy book, but there was much to lose, and the filmmakers lost far more than they needed to.) The major obstacle to producing an acceptable adaptation of this story has to do with what Jennings understood, both about the realities of the West, and about adolescent boys in it.

That Jennings was a Westerner by birth, and a founding member of both the Mattachine Society and ONE, Incorporated (something that, had John Wayne known it, would likely have given him apoplexy) I feel certain contributed to his understanding, on any number of levels. The book is not merely a “revisionist” Western — which in this case merely translates to a certain documentary realism, within a somewhat fanciful structure — but an attempt by its author to capture for a wide readership the authentic vernacular of the time and place. In a lengthy glossary addendum Jennings explains those terms in ways that, while never more than suggestive, and often eloquent, likely caused the pure of heart to blanch. He defines the word “bunky” (or “bunkie”) for example both in the sense of what we think was meant, and which slang term we still use, as well as by its largely unspoken meaning, as someone with whom a man (or boy) shared a bedroll for more than merely warmth or convenience.* In his preface to this glossary Jennings, a quarter of a century before Annie Proulx explained the obvious to a mass audience, observed wryly, “It seems unwarranted to assume that no such thing existed. Men do not cease to be men simply because there are no women around. Yet western historians and Hollywood would have us believe that erectile tissue was completely missing in the metabolism of the West.” Tissue belonging, let’s remember, to adolescent boys; not for nothing does the drive’s black cook Charlie Nightlinger (re-Christened “Jebediah” in the picture) note that their blankets are so crinkly he’s surprised they can roll them up in the morning.

Yet Jennings first wrote The Cowboys as a treatment for a potential John Wayne movie, which he then reconsidered as a novel, so one has to assume he understood that much of what he was trying to portray would inevitably fall by the wayside. (That he envisioned Wil Andersen, the ageing rancher at the heart of the story, as a role for Wayne seems obvious from even a cursory perusal of the book; you can hear Wayne reciting that dialogue as you read it.) Not that the author ever depicts anything sexual between any of the boys. It’s all implication, as when Wil wonders which of them will become bunkies on the trail; he’s been around long enough to know the score, and one imagines he had some experience of his own as a youth. Still, one can hear the panicked studio heads as they contemplated Jennings’ first draft screenplay: “Jesus Christ! We’ve got a picture where we kill off John Wayne three-quarters through, have pubescent and adolescent boys getting drunk and running into whores and then later turning into killers! You want to imply they might have humped each other too?”

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That Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, Rydell’s screenwriters on the previous The Reivers, get a credit over Jennings in the main titles is telling. And while I admire the Ravetches’ screen work, especially for Martin Ritt, and most especially on Norma Rae, I can’t help feeling that all the little “improvements” in the picture, and which collectively diminish it, are theirs. For all I know, Jennings’ script may not have been filmable; but the Ravetches’ seems to have been all too filmable. Put simply: What’s good in the picture comes from Jennings’ book. What’s bad comes from someplace else.

Like the wholly gratuitous manner in which little Charlie Schwartz (Stephen R. Hudis) announces he’s Jewish, or the unnecessary plot-twist involving the chief villain menacing one of the boys and swearing him to secrecy. While the people involved at least included the sequence in which the boys get drunk on Nightlinger’s private stash,† even retaining his and Wil’s eavesdropping on them and having the bottle passed to them in the dark, they made a fundamental miscalculation in stranding Wil entirely among strangers. In Jennings’ novel, while Andersen is forced by circumstance to take on as hands for a crucial cattle-drive from Bozeman, Montana to Belle Fourche a dozen un-tested schoolboys (plus a slightly older, and more seasoned, Mexican youth) Nightlinger is his regular cook, and not, as in the picture, a last-minute substitution. The screenwriters do worse than put Wil at a disadvantage; they rob him of a needed contemporary — a comrade who knows him at least as well as he knows himself, if not better, and with whom a sense of shared history imbues every sentence the pair exchange. That they re-tailored Nightlinger from a colorfully sub-literate former slave to the more cultivated and urbane figure of the movie likely had to do with liberal guilt as much as the casting of the ever-delicious Roscoe Lee Browne, who inhabits the role as completely and comfortably as the unaccustomed but attractive beard he sports on his face.

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Roscoe Lee Browne as Nightlinger

The preparation for the drive takes up nearly half the novel, and that length is necessary. The picture gets the team out of Bozeman pretty quickly. But worse than this loss is that the boys themselves are less individually delineated in the movie than in the book, a necessary telescoping that nonetheless hurts the narrative and the growing sense as it goes along of Wil’s hands becoming a team. Why the group was reduced from a round dozen (plus Cimmaron, the Mexican) to 11 is anyone’s guess, although the most obvious elision is the boy nicknamed “Horny Jim” in the book and whose compelling erotic spellbinding is entirely imaginative. Jim would have been no more welcome in 1972 than the sequence with the traveling madam and her small Conestoga train of whores. They make an appearance, at mid-point, the procurer given husky life by the redoubtable Colleen Dewhurst, but her purpose is less clear. In the novel, Nightlinger arranges cut-rate initiations for the boys, and it is here as much as in any implicit homoeroticism that the Warner Brothers suits must have put their collective feet down. As it stands now in the movie, the scene with Dewhurst is merely an intriguingly brief, and not especially useful, diversion.

The Cowboys poster

Killing little Charlie Schwartz off in mid-stream makes as little story sense as eliminating his crippled leg. There’s a cattle stampede in Jennings’ book — non-lethal, as it turns out, although precipitated by a similar event to the one that takes Charlie’s life here — but one suspects budgetary constrictions account for the abbreviated oddness of the sequence. The only purpose it serves is to get the filmmakers off a narrative hook; when Charlie dies in the novel, it’s as a result of being shot by one of the rustlers who kill Wil and make off with the herd, and at whom the boys’ wholly justifiable violence is directed. Again one presumes there was no way anyone involved was going to depict that event. But Charlie’s early death, and his lack of involvement in one boy’s working out the Vivaldi Concerto in D on his guitar, robs the movie of Jennings’ final line of dialogue, which in context is devastating.

My citing of the above is not gratuitous. It brings us to the crux, and the thing that drove the commentators mad in 1972: The boys becoming vigilantes — and worse — after Wil Andersen’s death.

As Jennings presents it, the boys’ deliberate and systematic enactment of violence against the rustlers led by the one called Long Hair (enacted in the picture with pop-eyed, spittle-flying psychosis by Bruce Dern) is not merely justifiable. It’s a matter of survival. While Long Hair has murdered their surrogate father, he’s also stolen the man’s herd and stranded the boys in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from home. Their only means of getting back alive, let alone of regaining the herd, is to outsmart the rustlers… which does not admit of leaving any of them alive. And even as the violence is cunningly orchestrated by the cowboys, meted out over a matter of days and arranged initially to look like accidental death (the killings eventually set the rustlers at each other’s throats), their acts are never depicted with authorial approval. Indeed, far from hatching the plans himself as he does in the picture, Jennings’ Nightlinger is so appalled by the calmly enacted bloodthirstiness of these otherwise sweet, good-natured boys that witnessing it performs a kind of psychic murder on his soul.

The Cowboys - Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern in full bull-goose loony mode.

The filmmakers were probably going to get pilloried for this no matter what they did. But where they erred worst, it seems to me, and most avoidably, was in the way the long, violent sequence at the end of the boys’ war against the rustlers was put together, especially in its musical accompaniment. Bringing in John Williams’ big, Coplandesque main theme as the battle intensifies is probably what set the reviewers off in 1972, because it seems to do precisely what the movie’s critics alleged: Urge the audience to cheer it on. I like to think this was not the composer’s doing but Rydell’s as director and producer; Williams can be bombastic, and overly lush, but I can’t think of any other time in his long career when he could be accused of insensitivity. Some of the mickey is taken out of this by the shots of the boys’ faces as they drive Wil’s herd into Belle Fourche.‡ The accusation most frequently leveled was that the movie endorsed murder as the means by which a boy becomes a man, and indeed the faces Rydell depicts here are devoid of innocence or pleasure. But neither are they celebratory, nor their deeds celebrated. Rydell may be less an artist than a gifted hack but whatever his reasons for bringing in the big strings and horns at that crucial juncture described above, I don’t seriously maintain he made the leap that killing equals maturity.

The Cowboys required an epic widescreen presentation (the early engagements even included an Overture, an Intermission, an Entr’acte, and Exit Music) but Rydell isn’t up to the challenge, even with so gifted a cinematographer as the great Robert Surtees. The director’s images are unexceptional, pedestrian. He does get off one nice effect, when, early on, Wil lets his horses out of the paddock. It’s an elegant means of depicting the character having decided to forego this year’s drive without making the actor say it. Rydell almost immediately undoes the good impression this makes, however, by including an irritating bit of foreshadowing involving a young and an older bull in battle.

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At least the picture is, with the notable exception of Dern, well-acted. Wayne knew and admired the novel, and it shows; when he speaks to the boys in the schoolhouse near the beginning of the picture, he keeps his fingers in his pockets, but not his thumbs, exactly as Jennings describes Wil doing on numerous occasions. But Wil doesn’t clear the schoolroom of girls and teacher through a great wash of deliberate obscenities as he does in the book — although I again suspect he might if the picture was made today — and although prideful he is never as hard, or as tough on the boys, as he is in the novel where, interestingly, his threats have a weight not even John Wayne can match. And while he visits the graves of his two sons and alludes to them in speech, we don’t get a sense from the screenplay of why Wil is wracked with guilt over their deaths, something Jennings in his novel teases out masterfully. That lapse, of course, is no fault of the actor’s, nor is the trace of uncharacteristically blunt sentiment Wil is given before he dies; if Wayne doesn’t do anything here he hasn’t done before (and if he’s rather obviously doubled in his stunts) he at least appears to be trying to stretch further than Rydell and the Ravetches.

Dewhurst is likewise pleasing, if ultimately wasted, as the traveling madam. Slim Pickens gets a good, albeit too-brief, turn as a saloon-keeper, Allyn Ann McLerie makes the most of her appearance as the schoolmarm, and Sarah Cunningham nicely underplays her abbreviated role as Wil’s wife Annie, another character given a great deal more heft and presence in the novel. Browne, with that most distinctive and unforgettable of voices, is his usual breath of fresh air, but in place of a character as real as Jennings’ Nightlinger, was given a monologue of such airy (and pointless) abstraction its only discernable purpose is to impress the gullible boys. Big deal.

The then 22-year old A. Martinez makes a fine Cimmaron, although he’s neither as handsome as Jennings describes him nor as ruthless. Roughly half the youngsters could act when cast, while the other half were seasoned riders; they worked together so effectively to shore each other up during pre-production that, in the picture, you’d be hard pressed to decide which boy hailed from which group. Among them, Hudis is very good indeed as Charlie Schwartz, as are the young Robert Carradine as Slim, Norman Howell as the God-burdened Weedy, Sean Kelly as “Stuttering Bob,” Mike Pyeatt as Homer, Alfred Barker as Fats and Clay O’Brien as the wonderfully named Hardy Fimps.

Although Wayne’s Wil, in a line from the novel, describes the boys initially as “between hay and grass,” the movie itself is more fish than fowl, and far more hay than grass.


*I am reminded by this of the way the similar demotic term “gunsel” has almost completely lost its original meaning, presumably by its use in the movie of The Maltese Falcon. John Huston, adapting Dashiell Hammett, knew as well as his source that the word implied a passive young man in a homosexual relationship. It’s precisely why Bogart’s Sam Spade uses the word to twit Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Wilmer, and why Wilmer gets so angry when he does. Today it apparently only means the other thing Bogart calls Cook: A cheap young hood.

†Naturally enough, however, they dropped Horny Jim’s drunken suggestion that the boys engage in a circle-jerk. No one was going there in 1972. Come to think of it, who would do so in 2018?

‡It’s a remarkably small parade of beeves and once again one senses a budget that simply wouldn’t allow for anything like the vast teeming herd Jennings describes in the book.

The Cowboys - Rydell and Wayne

John Wayne on set, with Rydell to the left. Note the placement of Wayne’s hands.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Festering like a sore: Up Tight (1968)

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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 come 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 in King’s case, 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 ideological agitprop 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 after 1966 and hit special prominence in 1968 in 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 very 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.)

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Raymond St. Jacques (center), Richard Williams (over St. Jacques’ shoulder) and (right) Janet MacLachlan meet in committee.

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 hover around the eight thousand-dollar mark — as cheap for the buyer as ever.

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.

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The all-too studied arcade sequence.

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.

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The soundtrack album. Note Trauner’s remarkably detailed, thoroughly lived-in set.

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, 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 with that image sans corporate lawsuit.

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Roscoe Lee Browne as Clarence spies his pigeon.

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 the former track star Browne was) 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 — the very fine Trouble in Mind is hers — is listed, for example, but in what role? (I suspect she’s the smiling street preacher exhorting her flock in the rain, but never having seen her act I can’t be certain.) Michael Baseleon, as the white activist Teddy who can’t understand why he is now un-wanted, has a good scene arguing with B.G., and Robert DoQui gets a very fine 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.

Ruby Dee - Up Tight! (1968)

The ever-glorious Ruby Dee as Laurie.

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 only substitutions for it he can find (the committee, and Johnny). Like Gyppo Nolan, Tank’s emotions too run the gamut, but Mayfield is more controlled, even in extremis, than McLaglen (the depth of Tank’s pain can easily be read in Mayfield’s expressive eyes) 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 always in these cases, heartbreaking.

Julian Mayfield Up Tight! (1968)

The splendid Julian Mayfield. The depth of Tank’s pain can be easily read in those expressive eyes.

While Up Tight is necessarily dated, it, like the equally inflammatory The Spook Who Sat by the Door, may prove prophetic — unless we as a nation begin to address the appalling inequities and sheer racism of an increasingly Fascistic system whose passive consent to atrocity and active murderousness toward non-Caucasians has, since at least the 1980s, grown increasingly systemic.

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 of 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

Running in place: The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970)

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By Scott Ross

Until quite recently, what I knew of The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) was limited to a few basic facts: Of its being William Wyler’s final movie as a director; of its starring one of my favorite actors, the late Roscoe Lee Browne; of its financial failure; and of its dealing, in some way, with what is prettily called “race relations” in the South of the late ‘60s. Thanks to a kind friend, I have finally seen the picture, and it left me deeply depressed.

No, scratch that: Depressed, and angry. This is due, not to any failings on Wyler’s part, or those of his screenwriters, Stirling Silliphant and Jesse Hill Ford, on the latter of whose novel The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones — a better title — the movie was based. I was instead disheartened by the action. Not because I found it unrealistic or clichéd but because I found it all too real. I am angry in part because I had been led, by capsule reviews, to think the picture was well-meaning but inert, and infuriated as well (if only in retrospect) by the movie’s negligible box office at the time of its release. But mostly, I am both angry and depressed because what this movie, now 45 years old, depicts is not simply, or merely, America Then. Remove the period clothing and music, and the casual use, in public as well as private, of the word “nigger” (we’re subtler now) and what The Liberation of L.B. Jones depicts is America Now.

America Then, in this story, is the South, and the country generally, in which a distinguished black man, a pillar, as they used to say, of his community (or, more to the point of this story, a “credit to his race”) can be cold-bloodedly murdered in the dark of night and his body mutilated, the crime covered up and the assassin, a white police officer, not only free but never charged or in any way acknowledged. America Now is the nation in which a black man or woman of any sort and condition can be gunned down by a cop or a private citizen, even in front of witnesses, be posthumously smeared by the press and blamed for his or her own murder, the crime “investigated,” and the killer never charged. Or, if charged, and (even more rarely) tried, acquitted.

Do you begin to understand the reasons for my rage?

America Now is America Then, Redux. And with a vengeance.

Lynching, in case you hadn’t noticed, is back. And expressing the unthinkable, the racially insupportable, has re-emerged as a game any number can, and does, play, often in screeching decibels, every day since January of 2008. Barack Obama is hated, not merely for the unforgivable sin of being a Democrat and winning the White House, twice —  standard practice on the Right since at least the advent of Bill Clinton — in itself appalling to people who believe they have the right to perpetuate, by whatever means, a Permanent Republican Majority. No, this man has the temerity to not merely be the leader of the other party: He also has the unmitigated gall to be a Negro! (That he is also half-white is largely ignored, although one can imagine the mere contemplation of that hideous act of miscegenation committed by his parents also informs the mouth-foaming rage of the GOP, dominated as it is now by the bigots and ignoramuses of the so-called “Tea Party,” an electorate designation that did not, significantly, exist prior to Obama’s inauguration. That he is also a neoliberal — in his own estimation, a “moderate Republican” and no friend to progressives is, typically, twisted by these types, who perennially screech, with no supporting evidence whatsoever, that he is in fact a Marxist.) Even those of us who despair of Obama’s corporatist leanings, his war-mongering and his serial lack of spine, feel compelled to defend him, more often than not, and despite our discontent, if only because the voices on the other side are so often and so stridently, hideously, bare-facedly those of unregenerate racists, freed now (at last! at last!) from the need to be polite, or covert, in their prejudices. One can be forgiven, in 2015, for wondering whether the 1960s and ‘70s ever even happened. I’ve begun to suspect we dreamed the entire era.

While racism is never entirely dead, certainly I never thought I’d see a return to such overt ugliness on a day-to-day basis, in my lifetime. The Presidency of Barack Obama has in some weird way allowed what had to be kept either silent, or behind firmly closed doors, a re-emergence into the sunlight. One has the feeling that all too many white, Christian Americans have been silently steaming for years, forced by law and politesse to swallow their fury at being unable to voice their xenophobia, and that all it took to overcome their reticence at expressing their contempt for everyone else — all that “political correctness” that frowned on their being able to call a spade a nigger — was the assumption to the Presidency by a man of color.

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Willie Joe Worth (Anthony Zerbe) confronts L.B. (Rocoe Lee Browne) in the latter’s kitchen.

The dilemma that faces L.B. Jones, in the unassailable person of the great Roscoe Lee Browne, is whether a man may stand up and be a man without being lynched. In a key moment, he recalls seeing a black picketer threatened by a white mob and running, to the jeering accompaniment of “Run, nigger, run!” Surely someone, someday, must refuse to run, and not be lynched. At the emotional climax of the movie, L.B. makes the conscious decision, remembering that taunt, to stop running… and discovers the fatal truth that reason does not prevail. His crime — his willingness, in divorcing his unfaithful wife (an act his racist white lawyer refers to as his “liberation”) to publicly air her prolonged affair with a white policeman — simply cannot be countenanced. What is done to L.B. is so revolting even the white cop (Anthony Zerbe) is sickened, and resolves to turn himself in. He is saved from this foolishness by L.B.’s own attorney (Lee J. Cobb), a prominent man haunted by his youthful affair with a young black woman. He is troubled, not by the affair itself, to which he freely admits, but by the, for him, unconscionable fact that he had begun to see her as a person.

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L.B. with his friend Benny (Fayard Nicholas) and the vengeance-driven Sonny Boy Mosby (Yaphet Kotto).

That there is some retribution, directed at Zerbe’s partner (Arch Johnson) via the intervention of Yaphet Kotto’s Sonny Boy, and that it, like L.B.’s murder, goes unpunished, provides, if not comfort, at least a modicum of dramatic satisfaction. But it cannot mitigate the horror, particularly in the ironic light of Sonny Boy’s own, earlier, decision to bury the past. The present, however, is not so forgiving. That the movie begins and ends with Kotto’s unreadable face is telling.

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William Wyler on the set. Center: Roscoe Lee Browne; right, Lee J. Cobb.

Wyler’s direction of The Liberation of L.B. Jones was, at the time, considered half-hearted, even cold. The failure to appreciate the craft, honed over 45 years, with which he approached this incendiary material, is also telling. In a cruel sort of irony, Silliphant, the co-scenarist of this picture, was also the screenwriter of the much more popular, lauded, and awarded In the Heat of the Night (1967). It takes nothing away from that robust time-capsule entertainment to note that The Liberation of L.B. Jones does not end with the racist toting LB’s suitcase like an unconscious Redcap parody, the crime neatly tied up and the rifts, if not mended, at least sufficiently patched.

In this picture of America Then, there is no comfort. And in that way, too, the movie all too clearly reflects America Now.

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Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross