(director: Jules Dassin; screenwriters: Julian Mayfield/Ruby Dee/ based on the novel The Informer by Liam Flaherty; cinematographer: Boris Kaufman; editor: Robert Lawrence; music: Booker T Jones; cast: Raymond St. Jacques (B.G.), Roscoe Lee Browne (Clarence), Julian Mayfield (Tank Williams), Dick Anthony Williams (Corbin), Ruby Dee (Laurie), Max Julien (Johnny Wells), Janet MacLachlan (Jeannie Wells), Juanita Moore (Mama Wells), Frank Silveira (Kyle), Michael Baseleon (Teddy), Ji-Tu Cumbuka (Rick), John Wesley (Larry); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Jules Dassin; Olive Films (Paramount); 1968)
“It doesn’t transfer well when changed from Irish revolutionists to black revolutionists.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Blacklisted American filmmaker Jules Dassin(“Never on Sunday”/”Topkapi”/”Brute Force”) earnestly directs this disquieting remake of John Ford’s Informer (1935), which was based on Liam O’Flaherty’s novel. It doesn’t transfer well when changed from Irish revolutionists to black revolutionists, since the revolutions are grounded in different causes. The ambitious political drama misfires on too many levels to be a successful historical or entertaining film, and is further drained by the over all strained performances–especially by the lead performer playing the sweaty inarticulate informer. Yet the film can’t be ignored, as its observations of bigotry and a country divide along racial lines still rings true today. All one has to do is witness the recent violent protests in Ferguson, in December of 2014, over alleged police brutality and the different way it was viewed by the races.
The film is set in Cleveland’s black ghetto, in April 1968, days after the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis. The tragedy has a tremendous impact on the country, but is especially felt in the black community. Radical groups advocating violence spring into action, as the angry young black man Johnny Wells (Max Julien) and two cohorts, Rick (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) and Larry (John Wesley), rob at night an ammunition warehouse and Johnny kills the nightwatchman during the getaway. He’s identified when he leaves his shirt at the crime scene, and that results in a citywide manhunt. Unemployed older steelworker, Tank Williams (Julian Mayfield), was too drunk to accompany his pal Johnny and is guilt-ridden that he couldn’t be there to help the inexperienced youngster.
The inarticulate Tank is informed by the stern black militant leader, B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques), that he’s unreliable and has been expelled from the organization. Also expelled are all whites and moderate blacks, such as the compromising black lawyer Kyle (Frank Silveira). The Black Panther-like group is convinced a revolution can’t succeed without violence and all black members. The vulnerable Tank, a confused, desperate and uneducated strongman, is told by B.G. that even Johnny wants him expelled. Tank is further distressed when rejected by his ex-girlfriend Laurie (Ruby Dee) because he has no money for her. She’s on welfare, and becomes a prostitute to support her two kids. So when Tank meets Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne), a witty homosexual police informer, his eyes widen when he’s told that there’s a $1,000 reward offered for information leading to Johnny’s capture. Unable to think clearly, Tank rats Johnny out to the cops. The police raid at Johnny’s mother’s (Juanita Moore) tenement place results in Johnny’s death. When the broke Tank spends the reward money at the bar, the militants figure out that he was the informer when he can’t explain how he got so much money. They kill him as he flees to the grounds of the steel mill, where he at least once had some respect as a worker.
Even though it packs little drama and tension, it’s a film that should be either upsetting or eye-opening to white liberals, the white Establishment and advocates of non-violence in the civil rights movement. It switches from a character study, in the original Ford movie, to more of a political study in this hard-hitting realistic film that examines how some angry marginalized blacks are blinded with hate and overreact with violence to the murder of a powerful black leader who ironically advocated non-violence.
What it has that exudes brilliance is the amazing soundtrack by Booker T and the MGs, a first-class instrumental R&B group that is tuned into the ghetto streets. It also brilliantly paints in Technicolor the proper drab picture of Cleveland’s tenement ghetto, its depressing steel mills and the vampire-like blood banks on its busy streets. It also shows that across the town the vile racist Indian baseball team logo is all over, as it symbolically shows how out of touch the population is with its racist history. I wish I enjoyed it more, because despite its many flaws this pic seems to have a timeless message worth telling about racism, corruption, the white power structure and urban violence. But I found it strident and too unpleasant a watch to stay with it when it became muddled.
REVIEWED ON 1/7/2015 GRADE: B-