More on Dassin April 8, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , trackback
The Film Forum retrospective on Jules Dassin has just ended, right when I return to the area. Anyone arriving to this piece via search or otherwise who caught The Rehearsal, A Dream of Passion, or He Who Must Die is encouraged to share an opinion. Those were the titles I didn’t get a chance to see but would’ve liked to given their rarity. I did catch Up Tight, Dassin’s take on The Informer, earlier filmed by John Ford, with the setting moved from Ireland to Cleveland. The film was his last for a Hollywood studio, though it carries very few of the placations one would expect from something financed and released in 1968 by Paramount. Beginning with footage of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral march and letting that wounded anger inform the whole of the movie, Dassin is here at perhaps his most provocative and overtly political without letting it become a full-on diatribe.
The film may work best as a curiosity to gawk at and a timepiece projected squarely against both whites and blacks of that difficult era. Dassin barks more at philosophy than race. Some of this inevitably dates the movie, even prefiguring the blaxploitation films that would come just a few years later, but there are also striking scenes and encounters, albeit played broadly in typical Dassin fashion, that seem to resonate as loudly today as they would’ve at the time. The most immediate example of this would be the carnival scene in the second half of the film, when an inebriated Tank (played effectively by Julian Mayfield in his only major film role) is perceived as the black militant incarnate by a group of stereotypical white people. They reduce him to a harmless caricature of the angry Negro seen on the news as Tank plays along with stories about a planned uprising. Dassin then furthers the nervous tension by filming the sequence with funhouse mirrors, making for a distinctly odd combination of faux revolution dialogue and ironically silly images.
Even with its self-imposed limitations that don’t really have the same effect on Ford’s version (though any true comparisons are useless), Up Tight can still be seen as a partially successful balance of an important topic usually ignored by Hollywood while also retaining the dramatic roots of Liam O’Flaherty’s original novel. A flamboyant Roscoe Lee Browne and the twitchy score from Booker T. and the M.G.’s are additional reminders that we’re not in Ireland anymore. Dassin is credited with adapting the material alongside Mayfield and Ruby Dee, who gives a fine supporting performance as a poor single mother romantically involved with Tank, and some context and explanation behind the motives for this seemingly strange revisiting of an already filmed story might be helpful. The DVD generation has gotten so accustomed to a Criterion-level pinning of films inside perfect-fitting boxes brimming with explanatory material that simply watching a movie on its own can feel incomplete to fully understand it.
Since Criterion clearly loves Dassin and the company has developed a relationship with Paramount, which I’d imagine still controls the rights to Up Tight, I wondered whether a DVD release from the boutique label could be in the cards. After seeing the film, my expectations for that idea took a hit, both because I’m not sure it’s of the quality necessary for Criterion to be interested and because the print shown was clearly from the studio archives. The sound was scratchy and the animated opening titles were full of dirt and marks, damage which settled down as the film went on but still never let the viewer forget the print wasn’t of recent vintage. Film Forum originally had the screen set up for, I believe, 1.85:1 but finally made the necessary adjustments to accommodate what looked like, surprisingly, Academy ratio. The not fully reliable IMDb page doesn’t even list an aspect ratio.
I’ll also make mention here of some writing I did on Dassin’s brilliant film noir Thieves’ Highway for the Noir of the Week site. It was actually the noir of last week there, but I didn’t have a chance to bring it up earlier. When watching the film again after not seeing it for a couple of years, I was impressed with, first, how beautiful the transfer on Criterion’s DVD is, and, also, how tightly Dassin was able to pace everything. There’s quite a bit of plot squeezed into those 94 minutes, but it’s more uneasiness than physical action. I don’t see Dassin as a director concerned with atmospherically setting a mood via short cuts like many of the noir auteurs. He instead built tension organically through situation and gravity, fully realized in the famous Rififi heist sequence where half an hour passes without any words spoken. Thieves’ Highway is his most pure of those prime noirs, and it’s a truly great film.