Directed by Jules Dassin
The United States of America
Few directors were as versatile and adaptable as the legendary Jules Dassin. A Jewish American by birth, a Greek in spirit, he spent most of his time in France doing crime and heist films that would influence countless directors and film-makers. Over his career, he would inundate himself with different world cultures. He began his life making taut film noir such as Brute Force, The Naked City, and Thieves’ Highway. Blacklisted in the late Forties from working in Hollywood, he moved to Europe where he continued his incredible career. His most famous film, Rififi, is considered to be one of the most important and influential heist films of all time. But success and critical fame did little to secure Dassin’s career. He would become a kind of wandering journeyman, taking work wherever he could find it. He made the Italian film The Law with stars Gina Lollobrigida and Yves Montand. He directed several Greek films such as Never on Sunday, The Rehearsal, and A Dream of Passion. He even helmed a documentary on the Israeli Six-Day War entitled Hamilchama al Hashalom. But after his banishment from Hollywood, Dassin did manage to return to his homeland and direct one last film on his native soil. That film would be the sensational and devastating Up Tight!
Up Tight! is a remake of The Informer, a film that won four Academy Awards including John Ford’s first for Best Director. But John Ford’s film was set against the Irish War of Independence in 1922 in Dublin, Ireland. Dassin chose to transplant his version of the film into Cleveland, Ohio. The time? The Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. has just been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A thousand televisions in a thousand bars, shacks, and houses in the Cleveland ghetto watch his funeral. Most see this as a moment of great tragedy befitting a time for mourning and reflection. But some see this as an inevitable call to action. In a lonely warehouse, a group of black radicals led by Johnny Wells steal crates of guns and ammunition. A white guard is killed in the robbery, but it doesn’t matter. It was for the cause. So what if Johnny has to go into hiding from the law? The revolution has teeth now.
There’s only one problem: Tank Williams. Tank was one of Johnny’s best friends. He planned the whole gun robbery. However, the news of King’s assassination sent him into a drunken stupor. Feeling betrayed by Tank, Johnny and his associates ban him from their revolutionary movement. Horrified at being abandoned by the only friends he had, he stumbles to his girlfriend’s house only to find her courting her welfare officer. Enraged, he fights him off, spurring the officer to swear that he’ll cut off his girlfriend’s welfare. His girlfriend shrieks at him that he’s ruined not only her life, but the lives of their illegitimate children. And so Tank finds himself alone, drunk, and hated.
But he sees a way out. The police have started a massive man-hunt for Johnny. There is an offer for a massive cash reward for information leading to Johnny’s arrest.
Embittered by Johnny’s actions and desperate to win back his girlfriend, he betrays his location. The cops storm his hiding place and engage in a deadly shootout. By the end of the gunfight, Johnny lies dead. And what does Tank do with the reward money? He goes to a bar and gets drunker than he had even been before in his life. People start getting suspicious that Tank suddenly has so much money right after Johnny’s death. It doesn’t take long for the Black Power group that Johnny was a part of to put two and two together. And so the revolutionaries descend upon Tank with a fury. Tank must make the ultimate decision: escape town, or submit to his fate. What is a brotha to do?
The brilliance of Jules Dassin’s direction is that nobody is portrayed as a hero. Everyone is a responsible for villainous or reprehensible behavior. The Black Power movement kills a guard in a robbery, sees the death of one of the world’s greatest activists for peace as a call for armed resistance, and views white people with hatred. In one particularly callous scene, a white friend of one of the movement’s leaders begs to join them because he truly believes in equal rights. He recounts how they went to sit-ins together, survived Vietnam together, and marched together. But he is thrown out because of his skin. They become guilty of the exact same racism that they fight against. Tank is depicted as a drunken coward. Yes, he is abandoned by his friends and loved ones. But his bad fortune is brought about by his own actions. In a sense, Tank is the descendant of the classic noir hero: unable to escape his past and his own faults.
But the real reason behind Up Tight!’s greatness is its cynicism. It offers no answers concerning how racial intolerance and strife in America can be solved. It only watches as the people sworn to end such conflict destroy themselves. Dassin seems to be using the film as an allegory for how black society is in many ways its own worst enemy. Examining his catalog of films, especially his film noir, this doesn’t seem too unusual for Dassin. Brute Force is about an underground society of prisoners who band together to escape from their prison. The plot is foiled when one of the prisoners breaks the oath of silence and squeals. In Rififi, a gang of robbers are captured by the police after one of their number breaks the rules of a heist by stealing a diamond ring for his mistress. And finally, here in Up Tight! all of the horror and bloodshed could have been spared if Tank hadn’t gotten drunk at the start of the film and failed to participate in the doomed robbery. In all of these films, Dassin seems to be making the point that a group’s destruction can be more easily assured by internal causes than external. It’s not the cops or authorities that you have to worry about...it’s the guy sitting next to you.
So who killed Johnny? Was it Tank for being irresponsible? Was it the Black Power Movement for abandoning Tank? Or was it Johnny’s own fault for killing the white guard during the robbery. Dassin seems to be trying to make a single point in Up Tight!: it sure as hell wasn’t whitey.