Now that our picture is finished, I find that I have a great deal more respect for all motion pictures, even the bad ones, than I had before. However unsatisfactory they may be from the artistic viewpoint, immense pain and effort, many disappointments and much agony went into their making, not to mention weariness of mind and body. To make a film is big business.
—Pearl S. Buck on the experience of her children’s book, The Big Wave, being made into a film, in her book, A Bridge for Passing¹ (1962)
Well into my adulthood I thought film director Jules Dassin was a European. It was not unusual for me to think this. My interest in film for many years was merely casual, even now; so, I did not pay close attention to the people who made movies. Moreover, the first film of his I saw, Rififi, was at an arthouse theater in the late 1960s. The film was in French. Dassin played an Italian safecracker in this French-language film. (I did not suspect anything at the time that Dassin’s character did not speak much in the film.) What else could he be but European? In fact, I would not have known that Dassin was even in the film except my sister, who took me to see it as part of the “education” she was giving me at the time, told me. She knew these sorts of things.
By the late 1960s I knew him mostly because of his wife, Greek actress Melina Mercouri, the very popular film he made with her as the lead, Never on Sunday (1960), which was of some interest to some of the women in my family for a reason I cannot remember, and the fact that Mercouri, by the late 1960s, had become the voice of Greek democracy in her very vocal opposition to the military junta that took over Greece in 1967. Most people who were around at the time have probably forgotten that she was one of the most talked-about women in the United States (she was appearing in a Broadway musical based on Never on Sunday) in the 1960s. There is another reason why Dassin became vivid for me in the late 1960s aside from his wife and my seeing Rififi, and another reason I was convinced he was a European which I shall come to shortly.
French director Francois Truffaut considered Rififi the best film noir ever made. If it is not, then it is very close to whatever is the best film noir ever made. It is one of the most suspenseful films I have ever seen. In an interview that is available with the Criterion Collection DVD version of the film, Dassin praises the film editor, and it is true that the film is wonderfully cut. In the same interview, Dassin says that when director Lewis Milestone saw the film, Milestone told him to keep making that film over and over again for the rest of his career, as Hitchcock had done. It was Dassin’s prototype/signature film. If Dassin had genius as a filmmaker, it was Rififi where he displayed it purely and surely.
When I watched Rififi recently, I was struck by how despairing a view it held of masculinity, not that it was toxic, but rather that it was tragic. The “tough guys” in the film are not without virtues: they have ingenuity, courage, an admirable disregard for authority, esprit de corps, endurance. Yet the tough criminals are selfish, violent, short-sighted, obsessed with intimidation (which leads them to devalue women), and, ironically, with the desire for the very authority or control that they disdain. (This last point is made vividly in another Dassin film, The Law aka Where the Hot Wind Blows.) Contrary to the belief of the Marxists, as the wife of one of the tough guys, the Swede, tells us, among the poor, it is not the criminals who are tough (and by virtue of their toughness, admirable) but rather those among the poor who choose not to be criminals who are truly the tough (and admirable) ones. To see toughness as toxic is to suggest it is an illness or a condition, but Dassin’s films suggest more profoundly that it is a human flaw with which we are trapped.
Had I known when I saw Rififi at an arthouse in the late 1960s that Dassin was, in fact, a Jewish American who had been blacklisted during the Hollywood communist scare of the early 1950s, I would have understood his character’s death scene much better. Cesar, Dassin’s character, has informed on his colleagues he assisted in a jewel store robbery to an opposing group of utter thugs because he was “afraid,” as he put it to Tony, the leader of the heist team of which Cesar is a part when he finds Cesar tied to a post. Tony kills Cesar because he violated “the rule”: no squealing. The whole sequence is Dassin’s commentary on the Hollywood blacklist scandal. I suppose he might have seen director Edward Dmytryk as Cesar as Dmytryk “named names,” as the expression goes, including specifically Dassin as a member of the Communist Party during the infamous Congressional hearings unearthing leftists in Hollywood. (Dmytryk seems to have gotten both bad ends of the stick by, first, refusing to testify and being sent to jail and, then, testifying in order to return to work but with a tarnished reputation in the eyes of people like Dassin.) I mistook Dassin, an expatriate American because he had been blacklisted, for a European. Rififi was released in 1955. It was the first film Dassin had made in five years because of the blacklist. His previous film, Night and the City, released in 1950, is also a famous film noir about an unscrupulous hustler who gets squeezed named Harry Fabian (played by Richard Widmark). It was remade with Robert DeNiro in the Fabian role in 1992.
This view led me partially to misunderstand his 1968 Black cast film, Uptight, which starred Ruby Dee, Raymond St. Jacques, Roscoe Lee Browne, and writer Julian Mayfield. The film is set four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and was made very close to that time. Indeed, it was released in December 1968. The film is a reinterpretation of John Ford’s The Informer, based on the same source material. The plot is the same: Tank, a union organizer who wants to join the revolutionaries, (old left meets new left), betrays Johnnie, the head revolutionary, to the police for a reward. Why he does this, even Tank does not know. The police kill Johnnie in a scene where Dassin makes a Black housing project look like a prison cell block. Consumed by guilt, Tank, who sweats profusely throughout the film, clumsily tries to deceive those who suspect him in his peregrinations in the film. Finally exposed, he runs for his life, is trapped on a crane at an industrial site, where he did his union organizing, exposes himself to his assassins, is shot, and falls to his death.
The film is set in Cleveland, a dowager industrial midwestern city. In 1967 it became one of the first major American metropolises to elect a Black mayor, Carl Stokes. He was elected largely because of the riot that occurred in the Black Cleveland neighborhood of Hough in 1966 that resulted in the deaths of four African Americans. Whites felt that a Black mayor would prevent further rioting. In July 1968, during Stokes’s first term as mayor, Glenville, another poor, Black neighborhood, was rocked by a gun battle between police and a Black revolutionary group that resulted in the deaths of four White policemen. Rioting followed. Dassin was forced to discontinue shooting Uptight in Cleveland because of the violence and the general resentment that Black residents of Cleveland had toward the film. He finished the film in Los Angeles. A Black mayor had no better success stopping the racial violence or changing the racism that caused it than his White predecessor did.
What could a European know about the lives of Black Americans, I scoffed. Considering the times, it was not unusual for me to think that. I refused to see the film when it was initially released. I have no idea how many Black people saw the film–it was a box office failure, probably because it was about race and was certain not to attract a large White audience—but the ones I knew did not like it. First, some Blacks were suspicious because a White made it. Second, the source material was White, and many Blacks did not feel that their situation was analogous to that of the Irish in Ireland. Some Blacks were also annoyed by the title. “Uptight” in the Black argot of the early 1960—Stevie Wonder’s 1965 hit, “Uptight” is proof of this—meant something akin to copasetic, cool, fine, great, fantastic. When Whites adopted the term, the meaning took a 180, becoming anxious, nervous, unsettled. There were many Blacks in the late 1960s who felt Whites misappropriated the term, and that their power enabled them to make their re-definition of the word stick. It was assumed that Dassin was using the re-definition of the term for his movie.
To blunt some criticism of being a White making a film about the Black political struggle in the late 1960s, Dassin had Mayfield and Dee rewrite portions of his script. And Dassin put it, “…I think they screwed up my screenplay. Not because of what they contributed but because it was no longer mine.”² This meant that Dassin ultimately shot a film that he did not feel was truly his, that he was uncomfortable with. The film does indeed feel labored and was seen at the time as being inauthentic.
Mercouri, Dassin’s wife, stated: “[Dassin] put his heart into the film. He wanted so much for it. He believed it was needed, that it could contribute to America’s understanding of the black man’s agonizing struggle. He never let anyone see what failure did to him. But I live with him and I saw his heartbreak as a man and as an artist.”³
I did finally see Uptight a few years after its initial release. I watched it again recently as I was thinking about writing this blog post. The film is enormously valuable simply for being a film about race in 1968 that was made in 1968. This makes it a genuine artifact, grounded in an authenticity that no one at the time could appreciate because we were all trapped in the moment. I can feel how much effort he put into the film, how much he wanted it to say something important. He had courage to make such a film at the time he did. Pearl Buck is right: even a bad film is worthy of respect. What makes Uptight important, vital even, is not a sense of triumph but the agony and disappointment that suffuses it as you watch it. Dassin, who I thought was European, wound up, with Uptight, making a quintessential American movie about our racial prejudice, our guilt, our phony liberalism, our horrific violence, and what makes us run. Filmmaking is a hard business and a harsh craft.
One final note: the theme from Uptight, “Time is Tight,” performed by Booker T. and the MGS (Booker T. Jones scored the film) was a huge hit single. It is one of the best R&B instrumentals ever made.
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¹Pearl S. Buck, A Bridge for Passing, (New York: John Day Company, 1962), 53-54.
² Peter Shelley, Jules Dassin: The Life and Films, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company,2011), 212.
³ Ibid., 212.