In the wake of MLK’s assassination, in the blistering heat of Cleveland, an unemployed alcoholic is suspect number one by a group of militants in Jules Dassin’s blistering UpTight. Co-written by Ruby Dee, this loose remake of John Ford’s The Informer features an incredible performance from Julian Mayfield in this exhilarating character study pressure-cooker thriller. Imprint delivers a first-rate Blu-ray with an excellent A/V presentation and a respectable assortment of informative bonus features. Recommended
The goal of any remake should be to offer a creative spin on a familiar story. Shot by shot, beat for beat is just boring. No one was asking for another cinematic version of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer after John Ford already did such a great job with it in 1943 - itself a remake of Author Robinson’s 1929 film. But Topkopi director Jules Dassin in collaboration with Julian Mayfield and Ruby Dee found a way to refresh the story in a way that was not only new and exciting but relevant to the time and place.
Crusader for peace within the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King has been assassinated. Out-of-work Cleveland steelworker, militant activist, and professional alcoholic Tank (Julian Mayfield) is beside himself watching the funeral coverage amidst a pile of empty bottles. Just when his friend Johnny (Max Julien) and other fellow militants need Tank to help them rip off some guns from an armory, he’s in no condition to help. When things go sideways and Johnny is identified for the crime, the police are on the hunt. Desperate to help his friend, Tank is ultimately cast out from the movement by B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques). In a drunken haze, Tank's world is turned upside down when police informant Clarence (Roscoe Lee Brown) makes Tank an offer to rat out Johnny for a $1000 cash reward.
Made mere moments after the tragic assassination of MLK, UpTight hits hard but never once feels exploitive. Shot on location in Cleveland, the film catalogs Tank’s unfortunate life as an unemployed alcoholic who is just trying to do better. We see the burnt-out bowling alleys where B.G. and his officers meet. We see the dilapidated home where Ruby Dee’s Laurie lives with her children as she struggles to survive on meager welfare benefits and turning tricks. But then we also see the stark comparison of the thriving largely white portions of the city that has no idea of the hardships and troubles their fellow citizens face just a few blocks away.
While this film certainly has a lot to say about the social causes of the moment, it doesn’t forget it’s also a crackling potboiler thriller. It's the perfect example of social message as entertainment. As Tank’s former world tightens and those accusatory eyes focus on him, the tension and suspense slowly build. It’s in these moments that you can revel in Julian Mayfield’s incredible performance as Tank. When the film needs to, it practically becomes a one-man show with the rest of the cast standing aside to let Mayfield work the room flawlessly bouncing from manic and terrified, to calm and assured, to deliriously confused often within a single line read.
Ruby Dee as co-screenwriter also has her moments to shine as Tank's sometime girlfriend Laurie. She often steps up as the film’s conscious reckoning furious with what’s happening around her but cognizant that the steps being taken are the wrong way to go. Seemingly indifferent to the suffering around him, Roscoe Lee Brown is terrific as the informant. Calm, cunning, and hypnotically persuasive, he’s but one devil on Tank’s shoulder. On the other side of that moral coin is B.G. played with brilliant commanding authority by Raymond St. Jacques. He’s so certain in his path he can’t see the humanity he’s too willing to sacrifice for a cause that's becoming increasingly murky.
Behind the camera is the ever-skilled Jules Dassin takes a break from landmark heist films to direct the hell out of this tightly-wound morality play. Of his films, this is Dassin at his most reserved and straightforward without a lot of the visual flair he could bring to a show. There’s an incredible sequence with Mayfield scarring the “whities” that calls back to Dassin’s stylized storytelling in Topkopi and Rififi, otherwise, this is about as hard and straight as it gets. He lets his actors do their thing with how they use any location to dictate camera moves and turns. Capped off by a slick score by Booker T. Jones, UpTight is an earnest potboiler thriller that still packs a punch 55 years later.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
UpTight comes to Blu-ray thanks to Australia’s Imprint label in a single-disc release. The film is pressed on a Region Free BD-25 disc and housed in a clear case with stylish slipcase cover. The disc loads to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Reportedly sourced from a 4K scan performed in 2019, UpTight makes a fantastic return to Blu-ray. The film was previously released in the U.S. by Olive Films (RIP) in 2012 and it was a decent enough release, but this is a notably clear and vastly improved transfer. Given that it takes place almost entirely at night, that 2012 release really struggled with shadows and black levels on top of just looking like a very old master. This new scan displays impressive details allowing you to fully absorb facial features, clothing textures, as well as the various Cleveland locations in various states of decay and rubble. Colors are healthy and strong with bright clear primaries and natural skin tones. Black levels and shadows are right on point avoiding crush while lending to a nice sense of three-dimensional depth. Free of any speckling or serious issues, this is a great-looking transfer.
This release also arrives with La strong LPCM 2.0 mono track. Much of the film works like a stage play with long sequences of dialog, so the audio mix isn’t always the most sonically aggressive. What any given character has to say at any given moment gets the most attention. All the same, busy city streets and even the burnt-out bowling alley there are plenty of authentic-feeling atmospheric effects working up the soundscape. The Booker T. score has the right mix of old-school funk with plenty of heavy dramatic beats, but it doesn’t overpower the show. It’s never distracting or out of place. The title song Johnny I Love You sounds fantastic.
Bonus features may not be the most extensive, but there’s a nice assortment to pick through. At the top of the pack is a great audio commentary with film historians Alain Silver and Jim Ursini that’s well worth running through. After that we have a great Jules Dassin video essay by Daniel Kremer and a solid piece from writer Christina Newland.
UpTight is a commanding piece of work. Dassin was in peak form working alongside Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield to craft a story that’s familiar but also fresh and powerful. We didn’t need a remake of John Ford’s The Informer, it's a great flick on its own, but we got one that skillfully maneuvers the action away from Irish Independence and into the heart of the 1960s Civil Rights movement during its darkest period. With crackling dialog and great performances from the entire cast, Uptight is essential viewing. Via Vision’s Imprint label delivers a fantastic new Blu-ray release with a terrific transfer, excellent audio, and a fine selection of brief but very informative bonus features. Recommended