Tank (Julian Mayfield) is an alcoholic. He’s also a black militant, but when he is too drunk (in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination) to participate in an arms robbery, the other men cut him loose. Short one man, the job goes wrong, and Johnny Wells (Max Julien, The Mack) shoots a cop. Unemployed since he lost his steel working job, the militants are Tanks only friends besides his lover Laurie (Ruby Dee, American Gangster), who has turned to prostitution to support her children. When he’s offered big money to turn in Johnny, Tank eventually gives in…but how long will he have to spend the money before his former comrades realize what he’s done?
Up Tight! is a curious and mostly forgotten movie, a remake of The Informer that moves the action from Ireland to Cleveland. I became aware of it through reading books on Blaxploitation, where it is sometimes considered to be one of the films that lead to the genre. Although Up Tight! is most certainly not an exploitation film, it’s an antecedent to the genre, as it features a nearly all black cast and frank and bitter discussions of America’s racial problems married to a crime plot (not to mention many actors who would later appear in Blaxploitation films). Up Tight! is far more ambitious than your run of the mill Blaxploitation films, however, as it ties its events to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (the film takes place just days later), and spends large portions of its running time to the militants’ leader (Raymond St. Jacques, Glory) debating the necessity of violence in response to the assassination with a reverend in the Civil Rights movement (Frank Silvera, Killer’s Kiss). Up Tight! stands still in these moments as the two sides bluntly state their positions.
Up Tight! also boasts a famous director, Jules Dassin (Rififi), directing his first American film after 20 years in exile after his black-listing as a leftist. Dassin makes strange choices, such as undermining the Cleveland locations-old tenements, city streets, burning trash pits and bars-by giving the film a dream-like (and occasionally nightmare) feel. The effect is interesting, but destroys the verisimilitude and grit the locations should have provided. The performances, despite the excellent cast, are stilted. Everyone comes off like Sydney Poitier returned from an engagement on the Enterprise’s Shakespeare festival. Every line is spoken deliberately, clearly and dramatically, but none of it feels real. It’s impossible to know if Dassin is alone to blame as Julian Mayfield and Ruby Dee are credited as co-writers, especially given Mayfield’s history in theater. I’d like to blame Dassin for the incredibly stilted scene where a drunk Tank shows up at an upscale bar/arcade (no really) and has a dramatic shoot-out with a robot gunslinger where he curses Whitey while bemused WASPs in tuxes sip their cocktails and regard him with amusement. Was it Dassin who wrote/directed Roscoe Lee Browne (The Cowboys) to play his stoolie as if he walked out of Shakespeare’s long-lost play about a gay informant? Browne successfully played a pyramidal robot named Box who freezes fish, plankton, sea greens, and other foods from the sea; a gay informant should be child’s play for him. The characters in the film are not people, they are stand-ins for ideas, and they largely speak in one voice.
The biggest problem is that when we’re not in the midst of debates over the use of force or scenes of police or militants chasing Tank or Williams, we’re stuck with Tank. Tank Williams is by far the biggest liability here. I’ve never seen The Informer, so I don’t know if Victor McLaughlin’s character is at all sympathetic, but Tank most certainly is not. He’s a big, sweaty drunk who betrays his friends when they (sensibly) abandon him because they know they can’t depend on him. Whether you agree with the militants or not, it’s pretty hard to get behind Tank after he rats out his friend, then goes on an idiotic bender with the money. Mayfield isn’t remotely likable or interesting in the role. Mayfield came from the theater, wrote novels, and was himself involved with militant NAACP leader Robert F. Williams, and like Dassin, he spent considerable time abroad. Mayfield seems to have had a productive career on the stage and in academia, but he can’t carry the film, although it’s hard to see how anyone could. One of the things that works unequivocally is the excellent score by Booker T and the MGs.
Up Tight! is a curiosity, an interesting failure that prefigures some films that would come later, but spends much of its time as a largely humorless attempt to understand the militant response to the racial situation of 1960s America. Fans of Jules Dassin, films with a theatrical feel to them, African-American film history or the actors involved may be interested; others should probably watch something more entertaining.
No trailer, but the first ten minutes of the film: