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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

UPTIGHT (1968)

Equally inspired and embarrassing, Jules Dassin (the most technically accomplished of the Hollywood Communist Witch-Hunt victims) ended two decades of European exile helming & co-scripting this rough-hewn remake of John Ford’s THE INFORMER/’35. (The Ford film is itself a remake of a little-known 1929 British Part-Talkie with Lars Hanson.*) Dassin (writing with actors Ruby Dee & Julian Mayfield) moves the story of the ousted, down-on-his-luck IRA member who drunkenly informs on his on-the-run best pal for the usual 20 pieces of silver, from Ireland to Cleveland, with the IRA replaced by a revolutionary Black Power cell. It’s one of those too clever by half ideas that might have worked if they hadn’t overplayed their dramatic hand tying it in with the inner-city riots that occurred in the aftermath of the MLK assassination. At heart an urban chase pic (with pauses for radical politics & philosophy), the genre elements feel like a cheap response to those eventful days & nights. Worse, Dassin makes a fatal casting error with debuting Julian Mayfield as the fast-imploding informer. Victor McLaglen may overplay his powerful, lumbering ox of self-pity and desperation in Ford’s version, but he’s always a charismatic lump. Mayfield, in a role that needs a Paul Robeson or a Forest Whitaker, is just a lump. (He never made another film.) That said, everything else in here is gosh darn fascinating, with a phenomenal acting line-up (Dee, Raymond St. Jacques, the great Roscoe Lee Brown as ‘nigger, stool pigeon & fag,’ Frank Silvera, Juanita Moore, and a smooth-as-Sam-Cooke perf from Max Julien), and a compelling physical look on screen (done on a dime) from two legends, production designer Alexandre Trauner & cinematographer Boris Kaufman. Along with Dassin, that reps a lot of White/Euro progressive sensitivity, and may explain the Expressionist/Super-realist sets & the throbbingly color-saturated actual locations. (On the other hand, Booker T. Jones’ score comes without any condescending Euro-art filter. Note bonus poster.)

It’s all something of an imaginary time-capsule, and probably easier to accept now than when it came out. But damn interesting stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL/LINK: * Either version of THE INFORMER: John Ford’s 1935 classic now feels overly curated, but still necessary. The adventurous can try wading thru the 1929 Part-Talkie on YOUTUBE in a scuzzy Public Domain print. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX5YSIxphz0

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