In 1968, veteran director Jules Dassin (The Naked City, Brute Force) returned to the United States following a long absence. Working in his home country for the first time in nineteen years, he took as his subject Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel The Informer. The source material surely resonated.
Years previously, in anticipation of trouble, Dassin had been shipped to London by Twentieth Century Fox for the shooting of Night & The City (1950). While he was away making this film noir masterpiece, testimony against him was placed before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and the director found himself on the blacklist. Unable to work in the United States, he began a career in Europe, starting with the great Parisian heist movie Rififi (1955), moving through Italy, until settling in Greece. Now back home, amid the upheaval of the late sixties, Dassin collaborated with civil rights activists Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield on an updating of O’Flaherty’s novel. While the book (previously adapted by John Ford) focuses on the IRA in 1920s Dublin, Uptight! transfers the action to the contemporary ghettos of Cleveland, Ohio, for a film planted firmly within the revolutionary firmament of the black power movement.
Shooting of the film began in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and Uptight! opens with footage of the massive funeral procession moving through the sunny streets of Atlanta. From here, we soon move to those viewing the televised event in the crowded northern city, where tears give way to brewing rage. Day turns to night, and for the most part the film stays there. As King’s acolytes plead for calm on the streets, an anguished Tank Williams (Julian Mayfield) is watching the funeral at home when his mourning is interrupted by his militant best friend Johnny Wells. Plans are afoot to rob a munitions factory. With Tank too drunk to play his part, the others leave without him. One man short, the robbery is botched, a guard killed, and crucial evidence left at the scene.
Much of the action centers on Tank’s increasingly feverish passage through the following night. Shorter and heavier set than the disciplined radicals, Tank was once a respected union rep at the steel mill (a nod towards Dassin’s own former union president?), but his past activism is now considered an anachronism. An unemployed drunk, he is viciously rejected by the militants who see him as a security threat, and turned away by his former lover (Ruby Dee), who has been forced to prostitution so as to feed their children. A pathetic and broken man, his loneliness and desperation reach such a pitch that he finds himself approaching the police for the reward on Johnny’s head.
In its nocturnal scenes, Uptight! achieves a register that contrasts sharply with its documentary opening. Low key lighting and splashes of bright color combine to a stylized, expressive effect, while Tank’s progress following the betrayal is through a series of scenes marked by their symbolism: a bar room bacchanalia bathed in red, street preachers regaling passersby, cowboy and Indian regalia in a street side fun fair. While Johnny’s murder of the guard turns him into an enemy of the state, Tank’s mirror action, the targeting of a model cowboy in a shooting range, simply marks him as harmless exotica to a group of well-heeled whites.
This is not a perfect film. The clichéd flamboyance of gay character, Clarence “Daisy” (Roscoe Lee Browne), is unfortunate in itself, but hurt is added by making the character a stool pigeon for the police. Nonetheless, the film’s serious intent shines through. The final minutes allow daylight to intrude into the frame, and a chase through the industrial landscape in which Tank feels himself most at home allows this sad figure to emerge with a kind of dignity.
For the director, there is no intention of letting bygones be bygones. Returned from exile to a country at war with itself, he shows those in positions of power striving to say the right things, but to no effect. For people who have for so long been the victim of injustice and oppression, it is too late for reconciliation. Dassin never made another film in the United States.