Review: Uptown Saturday Night

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Uptown Saturday Night would be a lot better film if it kept about the business of portraying Uptown Saturday night. Cram the events of this movie into one zany, frenetic dusk-to-dawn and you might, almost without worrying about it, create enough artificial pressure in space and time to make up for the fact that Sidney Poitier, directing his third feature film, still hasn’t much idea what to do with his camera. Mainly he and the movie try to get by on good faith and the proliferation of talented and likable black players—and good faith is easy to come by with Poitier himself, Bill Cosby, Roscoe Lee Browne, Richard Pryor, and the rest of the cast announced up front. Indeed, for anyone who may doubt that that’s the strategy, there are unabashed recognition shots for most of the players, so that the audience can greet them volubly without missing any exposition in the ensuing dialogue, and a sort of black Quiet Man finale—in which cameo shots of all the colorful characters are strung together in farewell—and to make up for the fact that the movie just lamely stops instead of arriving at an organically satisfying ending. Poitier also borrows a leaf from René Clair for his premise—a poor workingman (Poitier), having bluffed his way into a black gambling den, has his wallet lifted by holdup men and later learns that the numbers ticket inside is worth $50,000—and perhaps his opening, too, though here Rouben Mamoulian aficionados (are there any Rouben Mamoulian aficionados?) might protest that Mamoulian’s stage production of Porgy and Bess in the Twenties anticipated Clair’s early-sound frolics with its rhythmic, stylized-sound awakening of Catfish Row.

Anyway, Uptown Saturday Night does begin well with a sort of roofs-of-Harlem panorama and an effective montage of mill activity, the stamp and hiss of the factory cooperating very nicely with the jazz track to inculcate a sense of milieu that is almost metabolic. That’s what one hoped for from the film. But as soon as dialogue sets in, Poitier craps out. The first scene in the film proper, a simple dialogue between Poitier in the kitchen door and wife Rosalind Cash in the kitchen, is so awkwardly blocked that in Cash’s shots Poitier is invisible (to no stylistic purpose whatsoever), only his arm appearing in the shot, inexplicably seeming to grow out of the side of Cash’s head. It keeps happening like that: a strolling conversation between Poitier and best buddy Cosby, for instance, that is a textbook example of how to establish tension between two characters—keep them in absolutely separate frames even though they’re side-by-side and talking with each other—even though there is, and should be, no tension between the men. Poitier and Cosby stroll through most of the film, the other players popping up to do specialty bits, usually in one scene only, and then disappear. Harry Belafonte as a black Godfather, complete with Brando wheeze and cheek-cotton, is a funny idea—but on initial recognition only. Lee Chamberlin as Madame Zenobia, proprietress of the gambling house, establishes a nice teasing rapport with Poitier but, except as an offscreen dream image at one point, she is never called on again. The best single scene has Poitier and Cosby, who have elected to run down the missing ticket without calling on the police, bullying their way into an underworld bar, chests swelling larger and larger in macho triumph, until a certain Little Seymour and Big Percy step out of the supposedly terror-stricken crowd and cream them. Here a situation and Cosby’s mouthy self-esteem support each other to successful and sustained comic effect. Beyond that, the film is far too lax to convey much of the possible fun and excitement of Uptown Saturday night. Ironically, there was an abundance of that during Poitier’s, Cosby’s, and Pryor’s joint appearance to plug the movie on Merv Griffin’s show.

RTJ

UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT
Direction: Sidney Poitier. Screenplay: Richard Wesley. Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp. Music: Tom Scott. Production: Melville Tucker.
The Players: Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Rosalind Cash, Harry Belafonte, Calvin Lockhart, Flip Wilson, Paula Kelly, Lee Chamberlin, Roscoe Lee Browne, Richard Pryor.

Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson