Jul 282014
 
(Editor’s note: The following article comes from Steve Aldous, who works in the banking industry in Great Britain and has concocted a number of well-received short stories, two of which--“Lightning Never Strikes Twice,” an affectionate parody of the pulp private-eye novels of the 1940s and ’50s, and its follow-up, “Fork Lightning”--were shortlisted for prizes in Writer’s Forum magazine. A longtime fan of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft novels, he wrote three years ago in The Rap Sheet about Shaft Among the Jews and has since undertaken extensive research on Tidyman’s career in order to pen a book titled The Complete Guide to Shaft, which is currently seeking a publisher. Aldous lives with his wife and two sons in Bury, Lancashire, UK. He also has a daughter and granddaughter.)

The recent announcement that publisher Dynamite Entertainment will, firstly, reissue Ernest Tidyman’s 1970s Shaft novels and, secondly, produce new novels and comic books featuring his black New York City private detective, came as a most pleasant surprise. The books have been out of print since the late 1970s in both the United States and the UK. Only Germany has kept the seven Shaft novels in circulation, with Pendragon re-publishing the series between 2002 and 2008.

Dynamite’s decision was also confirmation of a view I have held for a long time, and indeed have promoted in The Rap Sheet previously--that there is still an interest in and a market for this culturally iconic character. Whilst the image of Richard Roundtree dressed in a leather coat, strutting through the streets of Manhattan to Isaac Hayes’ funky score is most people’s image of John Shaft, his genesis was on the written page. Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft series is in need of re-discovery and re-appraisal.

Over the last two years I have been preparing a book, provisionally titled The Complete Guide to Shaft--a history and analysis of the series in print and on screen. The aim of this work is to introduce the character and, in particular, Tidyman’s books to a new audience, as well as furnish longtime Shaft fans with new details about the series.

I started by re-reading all the novels, which I bought during the 1970s and still possess in their original UK Corgi paperback editions. I then undertook extensive research, initially online, to compile as much information and history as I could. This research also suggested a suspicion in some quarters that a number of the Shaft books had been ghost-written, and the name Robert Turner came up from a couple of sources. That initial research, however, proved sketchy and inconclusive.

It was earlier this year that I made a breakthrough when I discovered Ernest Tidyman’s papers had been stored in the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie. On approaching the Center I learned there was a vast amount of material covering Tidyman’s professional career, with the inventory containing 180 boxes of items: correspondence, financial records, and manuscripts. There then came a problem of logistics. Being based in the UK, I was unable to travel to the Center to undertake the research personally, so I obtained an inventory breakdown and hired a proxy researcher to work with me on honing the material down to what I needed. Over a period of two to three months, we identified the elements specifically relating to the Shaft series. I obtained copies of key pieces, such as Tidyman’s original character outline and handwritten notes.

Also during this period, I managed to enter into an e-mail correspondence with Alan Rinzler, who was publisher Macmillan’s mystery department editor in the late 1960s and commissioned Shaft (1970), the series’ initial installment. Alan was able to provide me with insight into the genesis of that first book.

These two new sources, therefore, gave me much of the detail I needed to fill in the gaps and finally answer many of the outstanding questions concerning the creation of the John Shaft character and the writing of the seven Shaft novels.

* * *

It was in late 1968 or early 1969 that Rinzler touted the idea for a black detective hero to literary agent Ron Hobbs. Rinzler had been involved in the changing social culture of that era, initially through his work fundraising and ghost-writing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in New York in 1964. He also worked for Simon & Schuster at the time, editing, promoting, and publishing works that highlighted the plight of black America--including Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), which detailed the struggles of growing up in Harlem. These books helped inspire the equal-rights movement for African Americans.

Hobbs was the only African-American literary agent in New York City, and Rinzler figured he could come up with the necessary writer to fulfill his brief. Hobbs, however, suggested a white writer by the name of Ernest Ralph Tidyman, who had only recently set up as a freelance writer, after previously enjoying a long career in newspaper journalism in Cleveland and Manhattan.

Tidyman was keen, too, to tap into the social mood of the time. His first novel, Flower Power (1968), was the tale of a runaway teenage girl who joins a hippie camp and is introduced to sex and drugs. It didn’t sell well, and despite his having contributed articles to magazines and written a non-fiction book (1968’s The Anzio Death Trap) about a controversial Allied assault in Italy during World War II, Tidyman was close to being broke when the opportunity to take Rinzler’s commission was presented to him.

Hobbs arranged a meeting between Rinzler and Tidyman. Rinzler was initially reluctant, but he allowed Tidyman to work up some sample chapters of the prospective novel. Tidyman duly obliged, and whilst Rinzler was impressed with the writing, he felt the story was too soft. He suggested a show of violence to emphasize the hero’s no-nonsense approach to solving problems. Following up on Rinzler’s suggestion, Tidyman re-wrote those early pages to include the fight in which the detective hero ends up throwing a hood out of his office window. Rinzler was pleased with the re-write, and offered Tidyman a $10,000 advance to complete the book.

Thus was John Shaft born.

Tidyman finished his draft and synopsis for Shaft on July 3, 1969. Keen right away to promote his property to filmmakers, he circulated galley copies of his novel. One interested reader was producer Phil D’Antoni, who was impressed by Tidyman’s use of dialogue and his knowledge of New York. D’Antoni thereafter recommended Tidyman to director William Friedkin as somebody who could adapt Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book of the same name into the film The French Connection (1971). Later, Shaft was picked up by MGM’s new head, Jim Aubrey, who--due to his studio’s financial difficulties--was looking to produce lower-budget movies, and Shaft seemed a perfect fit for his new vision. A deal to turn the novel into a big-screen picture was signed in April 1970.

The novel version of Shaft was first published by Macmillan in the United States on April 27, 1970. (A UK hardcover edition, from Michael Joseph, followed on June 24, 1971.) It was well-received, and Gordon Parks was hired by MGM to direct the movie adaptation. Tidyman formed Shaft Productions, with initial producers Roger Lewis and Stirling Silliphant acting as equal partners. However, production responsibilities were later passed to Joel Freeman, after Lewis moved to Warner Bros. Richard Roundtree beat out 200 other potential John Shafts to grab the title role, with which he would forever be associated. The resulting 1971 film, Shaft, became a smash hit across the world and was a major inspiration for the so-called blaxploitation movies of the early to mid-1970s. A deal was executed between Tidyman and MGM for options to adapt future Shaft novels.

Tidyman had already written a screenplay for a sequel, which MGM initially accepted on May 28, 1971, before the movie Shaft even reached theaters. The story was based on an article Tidyman had read in 1968 about the mysterious deaths of three diamond merchants. He folded that idea into a larger plot concerning an Israeli fugitive and his formula for the production of synthetic gems.

Meanwhile, after rejecting a screenplay proposal from B.B. Johnson, the writer behind the Superspade novels (Death of a Blue-Eyed Soul Brother, Black Is Beautiful, etc.), Tidyman’s partners at Shaft Productions had developed their own story for the sequel, which found Shaft having an adventure in the Caribbean. With the approval of MGM, Roger Lewis developed a screenplay entitled The Big Bamboo, and Lewis and Silliphant sought Tidyman’s approval to proceed. Tidyman, however, had commenced work on adapting his original sequel proposal into a follow-up novel--Shaft Among the Jews. Tidyman did not like, and subsequently rejected Lewis’ screenplay, and he would eventually submit a new original story himself in which Shaft seeks out the killer of an old friend whilst infringing on a gangland turf war for the control of Queens. It was developed between October and December 1971 under the name Gang Bang, but was later retitled Shaft’s Big Score!

The original crew from Shaft, including director Gordon Parks, returned to commence filming Shaft’s Big Score! in January 1972. Tidyman set about writing the novelization, which was scheduled to be published in May 1972, a month ahead of the film’s proposed release date. A disagreement over royalties with both MGM and his partners in Shaft Productions, though, resulted in the book’s publication being postponed, and Tidyman threatened to withdraw the novel altogether. After some prickly negotiations, an agreement was finally reached and the book was published on August 7, 1972, in paperback--the hardback publication of Shaft Among the Jews having preceded it on June 29.

The second film was also a box-office hit and it seemed the franchise had a strong future. Like the James Bond films of the 1960s, Shaft had also inspired many imitators. However, Tidyman’s disagreement over the royalties for the novelization of Shaft’s Big Score! led to a cooling of his relationship with his partners. Lewis and Silliphant were left to continue work on Shaft’s big-screen adventures, the third of which--Shaft in Africa--went into development in late 1972.

Tidyman, meanwhile, was keen to maximize the future earnings potential from his creation by adding to the series of Shaft books and hoping MGM would take up options to film those new stories. Also during this period, he attempted to launch a daily Shaft comic strip. Test panels had been drawn by Don Rico, who had worked for Marvel Comics, and were circulated to the big newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, but they failed to attract interest.

* * *

The success of the films Shaft and The French Connection--for the latter of which Tidyman received an Academy Award (as well as an Edgar Allan Poe Award)--significantly increased demands for his time and encouraged him to branch out further into other film writing and production. He set up Ernest Tidyman Productions and began to spread his time across a number of developing projects. The increasing workload encouraged Tidyman to hire writers to help out--particularly with continuing the Shaft book series.


Tennessee Williams presents Ernest Tidyman with the 1971 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The French Connection.

Tidyman had sketched out story ideas for three further Shaft books, which he wanted to produce in quick succession so they would fall within the timeframe of MGM’s options agreement. He recruited two writers to help: Robert Turner, a vastly experienced author of pulpish fiction (The Girl in the Cop’s Pocket, etc.) and a contributor to many of the pulp magazines of the 1940s and 1950s; and Phillip Rock, a screenwriter who had also worked on a number of novelizations in the early 1970s (including an adaptation of Dirty Harry). Tidyman had previously used Rock on his novelization of High Plains Drifter, the screenplay Tidyman had written for Clint Eastwood’s 1973 Western.

Robert Turner took up the first book, based on an outline Tidyman had written for a work titled The Gang’s All Here, Shaft. Turner developed Tidyman’s story, which centered on the planned heist of half-a-million dollars in laundered Mafia funds from a hotel that was hosting a gay convention. The resultant Shaft Has a Ball was completed in August 1972, having been heavily edited by Tidyman, and was published in paperback on April 2, 1973. Turner then moved on to compose Shaft’s Carnival of Killers (1974).

In September 1972, Rock had started to develop a book Tidyman called Shaft’s Last Goodbye. Tidyman had initially intended to end the series at that point, but once he’d conceded to involve other writers in his work he abandoned the idea. This latest story saw Shaft in action in a location outside New York City for the first time, in this instance London, where Tidyman and Rock had both lived for a time. The idea of shifting locations mirrored what Lewis and Silliphant had done with their third film, Shaft in Africa, directed by John Guillermin and released in the summer of 1973.

The plot of Shaft’s Last Goodbye centered on a kidnapping aimed at preventing Senator Creighton Stovall (who had also appeared in Shaft Has a Ball) from becoming the first black vice president of the United States. Shaft is hired to bodyguard Stovall’s young sons, who are moved to London in order to reduce the risk of their being snatched. Rock completed his writing on December 22, 1972, and Tidyman finished his editing on January 29, 1973. The book wound up being retitled Goodbye, Mr. Shaft as a nod toward James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934), acknowledging that the Stovall boys had attended an English public school during their stay in Great Britain.

Meanwhile, in August 1972, Turner had also commenced working on Shaft’s Carnival of Killers. This time Shaft would go to Jamaica in an attempt to discover who is responsible for a plot to assassinate that country’s prime minister. The story was rooted in a non-Shaft screenplay Tidyman had originally written in 1971 entitled A Carnival of Killers, featuring a private eye named Francis Clifford. John Shaft effectively replaced Clifford as the tale’s lead. Turner struggled, though, with the work due to illness, and deadlines were missed. The final manuscript, delivered in March 1973, was rather subpar and required heavy editing by Tidyman before publisher Bantam accepted it for American release.

Goodbye, Mr. Shaft reached U.S. bookstores on December 28, 1973, whilst Shaft’s Carnival of Killers, with its relatively short page-count, followed in paperback nearly a year later, in September 1974.

Around this time Tidyman had become disenchanted with the treatment of his creation on screen. Shaft in Africa had received his blessing, if not his approval. The film did not match the success of its predecessors, though, and in 1973 John Shaft made a move to television, instead, with Richard Roundtree reprising his role in Shaft, a series of seven watered-down movies for CBS-TV. At least that short-lived Tuesday-night drama returned Shaft to his New York City roots. But Tidyman had by then become tired of his creation and resolved to kill him off in the last book of the series, appropriately titled The Last Shaft.

(Right) The final page of 1975’s The Last Shaft. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Phillip Rock started converting Tidyman’s outline into a full novel in October 1973. The plot finds P.I. Shaft avenging the murder of his friend Captain Vic Anderozzi, who had arrested the Mafia’s bookkeeper and was looking to turn that man and his account ledgers over to the district attorney. Rock finished his manuscript on January 11, 1974, and Tidyman his edit on January 22. Shaft was killed off in a random mugging in a coda to the book that had no link to the story itself, providing a disappointing conclusion to the series. Bantam passed on publication in the States, but the book was later released in hardcover in the UK on March 27, 1975, with a paperback publication two years later.

* * *

Despite a couple of attempts to restart the Shaft movie franchise--first by Tidyman himself in 1979, after the expiration of his deal with MGM, and later (in 1985) by the author’s widow, Chris Clark-Tidyman--it wasn’t until director John Singleton’s Shaft, in 2000, that the character was finally reintroduced to the public. That film found Roundtree’s role being reduced to little more than a cameo, while the focus was on Shaft’s “nephew” played by Samuel L. Jackson. Disagreements between director, producer, and star meant any potential franchise relaunch was doomed.

Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft books are a product of a time when men’s adventure novels and film novelizations dominated the paperback racks. The first three books, written solely by Tidyman, had a distinctive hard-edge, wit, and style reminiscent of Mickey Spillane and, to some extent, Raymond Chandler. Those were the strongest entries in the series. The later books still carried Tidyman’s house style, due to his heavy editorial input and story outlines, but they suffered from a more formulaic approach to the writing and plotting, as well as an increasing level of absurdity. Throughout, though, Tidyman heavily protected his detective creation, and despite the tough exterior presented by John Shaft, the character remained real as a result of his fallibility. He is a hero of his time but also a hero who can transcend time, in the same way Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe can, due to his iconic status.

The books remain eminently readable and well worth revisiting. I hope their reappearance under the Dynamite banner, along with a new series of adventures, will reignite interest in the literary version of John Shaft. He has been absent for too long.

READ MORE:Beyond Shaft: Black Private Eyes in Fiction,” by Kevin Burton Smith (January Magazine).
Jun 022014
 
• Did you know that June is International Crime Month? Yeah, neither did I. So at first blush, this seems like a P.R. failure of cataclysmic proportions--nothing like the triumphal event it was been billed to be: “a month-long initiative featuring internationally acclaimed crime-fiction authors, editors, critics, and publishers who will appear together in a series of readings, panels, and discussions from four of America's most influential independent publishers--Grove Atlantic, Akashic Books, Melville House, and Europa Editions.” But as it turns out, other people are preparing to celebrate. There’s a free commemorative magazine being given out at bookstores this month, plus a schedule of book launches and other happenings. The bookstore MysteryPeople in Austin, Texas, has its own events planned, including a double-feature film series matching books such as Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress with the movies adapted from them. I’m hoping the International Crime Month Web site will keep us apprised of further developments along this line.

• Now, that’s a movie poster for you! The graphic on the left features gorgeous Eva Green of Casino Royale fame, this time promoting Sin City: A Dame to Die For, which is being readied for theatrical release in August. Everything you need to know about both this poster and today’s crisis level of U.S. idiocy is clear from the news that the Motion Picture Association of American wants to ban the advertisement “for being too sexy.”

• The A&E-TV series Longmire, based on Craig Johnson’s series of novels starring small-town Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, will return tonight for a third season, beginning at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

• Thirty-nine years after the final John Shaft novel--appropriately titled The Last Shaft--was brought to market, comic-book publisher Dynamite Entertainment has announced its plans to reprint Ernest Tidyman’s seven original novels about the black New York City private eye who’s “a sex machine to all the chicks.” Read my Kirkus Reviews piece about the Shaft novels here. (Hat tip to Gary Phillips.)

• And it was 35 years ago this month that Moonraker--the 11th big-screen James Bond flick, and the fourth to star Roger Moore--was released. The HMSS Weblog heralds this with a look back at how viewers and reviewers originally saw the movie.

• Check out “Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Spies,” currently underway and hosted by Movies, Silently. Included among the many offerings are films about Nazis, amateur espionage agents, Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto and of course Bond, James Bond. The “Snoopathon” will continue through tomorrow, June 3. Click here for all the vital links.

• That reminds me: Another blogathon began today, this one focusing on television programs featured in MeTV’s summer broadcast schedule. Among the first posts is Mitchell Hadley’s tribute to Peter Gunn, found in It’s About TV!. Other commentators will take on such shows as Adam-12, The Saint, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Columbo. You’ll find a full catalogue of elements from this blogathon--which runs through Thursday--by clickety-clicking here.

• Both CSI and Chuck number among Neatorama’s picks of “The 25 Most Powerful TV Shows of the Last 25 Years.”

• Janet Rudolph offers this preview of Endeavour, Season 2, which will premiere in the States as part of PBS’ Masterpiece series, beginning on Sunday, June 29.

• The delightful Ms. Rudolph also has some advice for attendees at this year’s Bouchercon in Long Beach, California.

• The Classic TV History Blog’s Stephen Bowie offers up, this time in the A.V. Club blog, a fine essay about what might have been one of the last great private detective series, Mannix. He writes, in part:
Mannix was easy to take, period. The low-key personality of Mike Connors, the former basketball player and B-movie actor who played the title character, set the tone. Likable but flinty, Connors was a tough guy who didn’t have to show off. An idealist and a nice guy, Mannix was perfectly willing to take on a lost little girl as a client and negotiate his fee in lunch money (never actually collected, of course). Connors had a rare sincerity that kept scenes like that from getting corny. (When cynical private eye shows like Harry O and The Rockford Files made a point of their protagonists’ pragmatic eye for a buck, it was mainly Mannix they were rebuking.) Working out of a comfy Spanish-styled home office, dressed in plaid sport coats made out of fabric as thick as carpet, driving a snazzy muscle car painted a hideous shade of army-Jeep green, Joe Mannix was functional but square. It was all of a piece. Mannix was the audience’s uncle or its brother-in-law--that quiet, comforting fellow who never let on that he’d mowed down a whole squadron of advancing enemies during the war.
I said my own piece about Mannix in this 2008 Rap Sheet post.

• In Killer Covers, I’ve begun a week’s worth of postings about cool vintage books that feature days of the week in their titles.

R.I.P., The Brady Bunch’s Ann B. Davis.

• BOLO Books’ Kristopher Zgorski recaps his days spent at the Book Expo America conference in New York City, May 28-30.

• Bob Byrne serves up a short but notable encomium to John D. MacDonald and his many novels, in the blog Black Gate.

• The June 2014 edition of The Big Thrill, sponsored by the International Thriller Writers, is currently available here.

• I somehow missed this Newton Thornbury novel from 1968.

• I’d forgotten that Liam Neeson will star as unlicensed private detective Matthew Scudder in the film adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones. Fortunately, Crimespree Magazine remembered, and recently posted this trailer for the picture, which is set to premiere in theaters on September 19.

• British novelist John Harvey deserves critical attention, and he gets lots of it in two new pieces by Michael Carlson. The first one--located here--applauds “the downbeat beauty” of Harvey’s main series star, Nottingham Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, who appears (for one last time) in the novel Darkness, Darkness, already available in the UK and set to debut in U.S. bookstores in mid-September of this year. Carlson’s second Harvey piece, here, identifies the critic’s five favorite Resnick novels.

• The NBC-TV spy drama The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first flickered across boob-tube screens on September 22, 1964. To note the passage since of 50 years, a two-day extravaganza billed as “The Golden Anniversary Affair” will be mounted “somewhere in Los Angeles” on September 26 and 27 of this year. “This once-in-a-lifetime event will feature a reunion of cast and crew members, panels and presentations by U.N.C.L.E. aficionados, as well as a display of original props and other surprises,” promises a promotional Web site. “A special feature will be an exclusive The Man from U.N.C.L.E. MGM/Sony Studios tour, on Sept. 26th, that features a visit inside Stage 10 where U.N.C.L.E. HQ once stood.” It looks as if there are many more details to work out before this observance can take place, but an associated Facebook page has already been launched, and donations are being raised. It all sounds like an “Affair” to remember.

The Boston Globe profiles Joseph Finder, explaining:
After publishing 10 suspense novels, two of them bestsellers turned into Hollywood movies, Joseph Finder had what most writers would sell their souls for: brand-name author status; a seven-figure, multibook deal with a major publisher; a list of his previous works aggressively marketed by his publisher; and a loyal readership for virtually anything he wrote.

Then, two years ago, in a plot twist befitting one of Finder’s didn’t-see-that-coming thrillers, he made an abrupt change. After his last novel, “Buried Secrets,” failed to make the bestseller list, the Boston-based author bought out his contract with a seven-figure check, left his longtime publisher and agent, and wrote his next novel without a signed deal in place.

He took an additional risk by not publishing anything for nearly three years, an eternity in the life of a popular thriller writer. His goal was to remake his brand, and aim at a larger audience.
Don Johnson talks with Salon about Miami Vice, “his wild years with Andy Warhol and Hunter S. Thompson--and his recent comeback.”

• Finally, after a four-year hiatus, historian-author Laura James’ blog, Clews: Your Home for Historic True Crime, has suddenly reappeared with an overview of Harold Schechter's The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation. I’ve reinstalled a link on this page under “True Crime.”
Apr 272012
 

This essay was originally published at Ebony.com

By all cultural accounts, 1968 was a hellish year for America. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy helped spark the “burn baby burn” sensibility ignited in the streets. It was also during this turbulent period that Paramount Pictures reluctantly agreed to finance Jules Dassin’s remake of the classic film The Informer into militant action film Up Tight.

Moving the action from the streets of Ireland to the ghettos of Ohio, Dassin’s bleak exploration into the world of sharp-dressed Black revolutionaries introduced the Blaxploitation aesthetics that later influenced a crop of Black action films including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft (197), Super Fly (1972) and others.

In addition, the film stars an ensemble of actors that would a few years later become major stars including Ruby Dee (American Gangster), Raymond St. Jacques (Cotton Comes to Harlem), Max Julian (The Mack), Janet MacLachlan (Sounder), Juanita Moore (The Mack), Roscoe Lee Browne (Uptown Saturday Night), James McEachin (Buck and the Preacher) and Dick Anthony Williams.

Best known for his role as the sharp-tongued pimp Pretty Tony in The Mack, this was the film debut for Chicago native Williams. Playing Corbin with the heated coolness of hot ice, his performance was brilliant.

Up Tight, whose original title was The Betrayal, focuses on a group of fictional revolutionaries called The Committee. In his otherwise positive 1969 review of Up Tight, critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun Times, “It’s remarkable that a major studio financed and released this film.” However, according to Ebony magazine in November, 1968, the studio did try to bow out on their commitment to bankroll the film.

“Paramount did not want to release the film,” stated co-star then-84-year-old Ruby Dee, who also co-wrote the script, at a 2008 screening of the film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Afro-Punk Festival. Surprisingly, she had never seen the film prior to the 2008 screening in Brooklyn.

After Dassin passionately argued the project’s relevance, a Paramount executive supposedly said, “I’m crazy, but we’ll do it.” Reportedly, the budget was little over two million dollars.

A New York City native, Dassin grew-up in Harlem and moved to Hollywood in 1940 beginning his career as an apprentice with Alfred Hitchcock. A few years later, proving he too was a visionary filmmaker, Dassin directed the film noir gems Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night and the City (1950).

In 1951, Dassin’s successful Hollywood career came to a screeching halt when, after being labeled a Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he relocating to France. He struggled for a few years after Hollywood studios informed European producers that no Dassin film would ever be distributed in the states.

Unafraid of the repercussions, producer Henri Bérard took a chance in 1955 and hired Dassin to adapt the noir novel Rififi. The film was successful and became the template for future heist flicks including The Anderson Tapes and Ocean’s 11. Yet, while Dassin won the 1955 Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, it would still be another thirteen years before he was hired by an American company to shoot a movie in the states.

Up Tight opens with stark newsreel styled footage Dassin shot of Martin Luther King’s funeral procession in Atlanta as disgusted and distraught bystanders wept. “As we were finishing the shoot, Dr. King was assassinated, so Jules took his cameras down to Memphis and Atlanta and incorporated some of that footage into the beginning of the film,” Dee explained. “We then rewrote and reshot some of the film to reflect what had just happened.”

Minutes into the movie, the camera pulls back to show a group of young men watching the sad spectacle on a television set inside a rundown Cleveland, Ohio barbershop. “I brought the story to Cleveland because I think Cleveland is more representative of a big American city than any other,” Dassin told the Ohio Plain Dealer at the time.

Shot in a section known as Hough, two years before the community was the scene of an infamous riot that took place over six nights, we see a community in shambles and on the verge of explosion. The tenements and tacky hotels, side streets and steel mills look as though they might blow away in the next storm. In the same way King’s death led to riots in streets major cities, it was used as the motivation behind the crime in Up Tight that sets the pulp fiction aspect of the movie in motion with a failed heist of a gun armory the night of King’s funeral.

“The man from love got his head shot off,” spits Jeannie (Janet MacLachlan), one of the militants. “And all those people learned nothing.” Coldly, the organization’s co-leader B.G., portrayed superbly by Nehru jacket wearing Raymond St. Jacques, replied, “Death is a fast teacher. They’ll learn, it’s clearer now.”

A few scenes later the entire Committee, led by soft-spoken Corbin (Dick Anthony Williams) meet-up inside their headquarters, an abandoned bowling alley. Film World magazine described the location as, “…something out of a Black Power nightmare.”

Two of the film’s stars, Julian Mayfield (Tank Williams) and Ruby Dee (Laurie), co-wrote the script with the director. Originally, Dassin sought Ruby’s husband actor/director/writer Ossie Davis as a co-writer, but he was scheduled to be in Mexico shooting Sydney Pollack’s film Scalphunters starring Burt Lancaster. Having taken his wife to the meeting, Davis suggested Ruby would be just as good behind the typewriter and Dassin took his word.

“Ruby has a very strong, poetic talent,” Dassin told Ebony in November 1968. “Her sense of images, her sense of sound is just marvelous. It was a very full collaboration.” Asked about the film’s title change from The Betrayal to Up Tight, Dee, who is also a Cleveland native, answered, “Jules was very pleased with when the new title was suggested. It was an uptight time. Being Black in America is an uptight situation. If you’re going to survive, you have to loosen-up.”

Dassin’s second script collaborator as well as the Up Tight’s star, was novelist, journalist and stage actor Julian Mayfield. The burly scribe had gotten the gig at the suggestion of co-star Frank Silva, whom he had met a few months before a writer’s conference at Fisk University. Mayfield had just returned to the country after being in exile in Ghana.

Although Up Tight was Mayfield’s first screenplay, his talent as a novelist on The Hit (1957) and The Long Night (1958) had been celebrated in Jet magazine years before the Dassin collaboration. “Julian Mayfield demonstrates with an almost disarming ease that he possesses narrative skill, a sense of dramatic unity and poetic feeling,” they wrote. Though partially forgotten since his death 1985, crime novelist and The Wire writer George Pelecanos reprinted Mayfield’s short story “The Last Days of Duncan Street” D.C. Noir 2: The Classics (Akashic Books) in 2008.

In their shared 1998 autobiography With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, Dee wrote that director Dassin originally wanted James Earl Jones to play the intoxicated loser who betrays the Black militant organization, his woman, his best friend Johnny Wells and, in the end, himself.

Yet, while writing with Mayfield, the director realized he had the perfect “Tank” sitting next to him. “I don’t feel this will be a film we will be ashamed of,” Mayfield told a reporter in 1968. “Just seeing certain images will be so new, it will blow the minds of many people, Black and white, to see what is going on in this country.”

Working with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who shot On the Waterfront (1953) and The Pawnbroker (1963), making Up Tight a visually nightmarish film that was arty, brutal and beautiful. Dassin created a claustrophobic cinematic landscape that New York magazine critic Judith Crist described as, “teeming and pulsing one minute, stark in its solitudes and isolations the next.”

“But, it was about the music too,” says Darius James, author of That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude. “Booker T. & the MG’s doing ‘Time is Tight’ was the best. This was a few years before the big soul soundtracks like Shaft or Super Fly, and people loved it.”

According to journalist Rob Bowman, author of the fascinating book Soulville USA: The Story of Stax Records (1997), the group was commissioned after the film was completed. In preparation to learning the art of scoring films, bandleader Booker T. spent a week with Quincy Jones.

“Quincy was complimentary when I came to California,” Booker T. told Bowman. “He felt we were equals. He really made me feel good about the music, asking me for advice, for tips about making stuff funky.”

The score was recorded in Paris, where Dassin edited the film, away from the prying eyes of studio executives who had threatened, according to Ruby Dee, to pull the film.

The Up Tight soundtrack spawned Booker T. & the MG’s second biggest single “Time is Tight;” heard in fragments throughout, the complete song serves as the film’s coda. Booker T. wanted to name the song after the film, but didn’t want to confuse the audience with the 1966 Stevie Wonder song of the same name. The single went to #7 on the R&B charts and #6 on the pop charts. In Soulville, writer Bowman says, “‘Time is Tight’ just might be Booker T & the MGs finest moment.”

Cultural critic Greg Tate recalls seeing the Up Tight at a drive-in when he was a kid. “The scene where the hood rains bottles on the cops is still a visceral childhood memory,” Tate explained, still excited forty years later by an especially impressionistic moment in the movie.

While Up Tight remains one of the best gritty political crime features from that period, it was soon, according to Ruby Dee, withdrawn by the studio. Although it can occasionally be seen on late-night television, at repertoire houses or film festivals, Paramount has never released the film on video or DVD.

After the disheartening experience on Up Tight, director Jules Dassin, who died in Athens, Greece in 2008 at the age of 96, never made another movie in America.

Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories and essays for New York, Wax Poetics, Vibe and XXL. He has also published crime fiction in Needle, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, Pulp Metal and A Twist of Noir. Currently he is completing his Harlem heist novel Uptown Boys.

Feb 112012
 

When I was a teenager, the soundtrack was simple and indeed played on a 8-track tape player – and how sad is it that I’m that old – the heft of a portable x-ray machine strapped beneath the dash of my dad’s ’65 Ford Galaxy when I was a senior in high school. Pumped at volume as those of us on the football squad arrived for our Friday night games, the “Theme to Shaft” by Issac Hayes. Cue that great guitar intro:

Who is the man
That would risk his neck for
his brother man?
(all the girls say: Shaft!)
Can ya dig it?

Who's the cat that won't cop out,
When there's danger all about
(all the girls again say: Shaft!)
Right on

But there was also “Lola” from the Kinks that, shall we say, piqued our interests,–

Well, I'm not the world's most physical guy,
But when she squeezed me tight she nearly
broke my spine
Oh my Lola, L-L-Lola

Well, I'm not dumb but I can't understand,
Why she walked like a woman but talked like a man,
Oh my Lola, L-L-Lola, L-L-Lola

Time passes and there were other Friday nights spent in places like the Jockey Club and Jukebox Jury…yes my friends, the Age, the Scourge of Disco had arrived. And what better song encapsulated this ere than “Disco Inferno” by the Tramps (riffed on I shamelessly note in a short story of mine called “Disco Zombies” from the Cocaine Chronicles recently republished in my short story collection, Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers)

Satisfaction came in a chain reaction -- Do you hear?
I couldn't get enough, so I had to self destruct,
The heat was on, rising to the top
Everybody's goin' strong
That is when my spark got hot
I heard somebody say

Burn baby burn! -- Disco inferno!
A, ah yeah!

Threaded through those time periods and into my mid to late twenties are those relationships that healed you and took something out of you at the same time. Who better than the Joe Simon in his song “Drowning in the Sea of Love” to express that:

I’ve been down one time,
I’ve been down two times,
Now I’m drowning,
Drowning in the sea of love

And there was Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” song that pretty much summed it up for me and wommin' folk as well --

I got a Black Magic Woman
I got a Black Magic Woman
Yes, I got a Black Magic Woman
She's got me so blind I can't see
But she's a Black Magic Woman and
she's trying to make a devil out of me

For the tough times there’s the two constants, the Boss’ “Darkness on the Edge of Town” –

Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost,
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost,
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.

And War’s “Slippin’ into Darkness,”

When I heard my mother say,
You've been slippin' into darkness,
Oh oh oh oh
Pretty soon, you're gonna pay.
Yeah, yeah.

When it comes time to checkout, like how it was used for a dying Russian gangster on an episode of House, maybe that last soundtrack will be the intonations of the late great Eddie Hazel’s guitar magnificence on Funkadelic‘s “Maggot Brain.”

(you can click on Treacherous or "Maggot Brain" for extras by the by)