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)