Saturday, August 27, 2011

1967 - In the Heat of the Night

My first earthquake and my first hurricane all in the same week! While my earthquake experience merely consisted of feeling the building wobble for a few seconds, I suspect Hurricane Irene may cause a slightly larger impact. We are not in the evacuation zone, but to prepare for the impending storm, Kat and I have stocked up on groceries and have a "go bag" ready. There is one dilemma, though. The authorities tell us to stay indoors and keep clear of the windows to avoid potential flying debris. Since we live in such a small apartment, that essentially means we may have to sleep in the bathtub. But they also say to fill the bathtub in order to have water with which to flush the toilet in the event that the plumbing is shut off.

Kat and I are now preparing for the longest bath-time in history.

The Academy's pick for Best Picture of 1967 is our next film to go under the microscope...

In the Heat of the Night
Norman Jewison
Stirling Silliphant
(based on the novel by John Ball)
Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, James Patterson, William Schallert, Beah Richards
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Steiger)

When a dead man is discovered in the wee hours of the morning in Sparta, Mississippi, the police chief, Bill Gillespie (Steiger), orders Sergeant Sam Wood (Oates) to sweep the town for suspects. Waiting at the train station is a black man, Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), who quickly becomes suspect number one. Gillespie's suspicions prove unwarranted, however, when it becomes clear that Mr. Tibbs (for that is what they call him) is actually a police officer himself - a homicide detective, no less. When Gillespie confirms this with Tibbs' superior in Philadelphia, Tibbs is ordered to stay in Sparta to help the small town police force with their investigation. Neither man is particularly happy with that arrangement, but the two reluctantly work together, which often consists of Gillespie asserting his certainty of a suspect's guilt before Tibbs explains how he's wrong. With racial tensions high amongst the town's residents, Tibbs must try to stay safe while earning Gillespie's respect.

'Tense' is the first word that comes to mind when viewing In the Heat of the Night. Not only are there several moments of potential (and actual) violence that keep you on the edge of your seat, plus a genuinely absorbing police procedural storyline, but the main thrust of the narrative - that of the relationship between a white Southern police chief and a black city-dwelling homicide detective - is a particularly intense display of mutual obstinacy. The two men butt heads consistently, staring each other down with glassy eyes on many occasions. The film's languidly rousing music is the perfect complement to this tension - including the sultry theme song sung by Ray Charles - yet is used sparingly, allowing the tensest scenes to cleverly remain unscored.

Perhaps my only major criticism of the picture is the final moment. The gripping tension of the previous couple of hours deserves a better climax than the somewhat cheap smiles that Tibbs and Gillespie present to each other as Tibbs leaves. Sure, they have developed a mutual respect now, we get that. But I think I would have preferred a simple understated nod that at least acknowledges the history of their strained relationship rather than the Hollywood-style all-is-forgiven wrap-up that comes across as a little cheesy and unnecessary, especially considering it takes place in the space of about ten seconds. Not that Poitier's and Steiger's smiles are overstated by any means, so perhaps I'm being too harsh. It could have been a lot worse. After all, they don't actually confess their feelings in words. I suppose I just like my touching conclusions to be as subtle as possible.

Sidney Poitier's strong presence is perfect for the bullheaded Virgil Tibbs, but he unfortunately missed out on an Oscar nomination. Not so, Rod Steiger, whose gum-chewing grumblebum with the yellow-tinted sunglasses is a brilliantly fascinating portrayal to watch, very much deserving of his Best Actor win. The supporting players' performances border on stereotypical small-town hicks, but they all serve their purpose well. Beah Richards, who played Poitier's mother in the same year's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, is superb here as a sassy back-room abortionist.

1 comment:

  1. I’m quite fond on In the Heat of the Night. I think it has held up very well all these years, primarily because it didn’t hit you over the head with its message. Norman Jewison has stated that he wanted to keep it entertaining by keeping the murder mystery front and center. Some have criticized the mundane solution to the homicide. I actually think it works better as a robbery gone bad than it would have as a more complicated plot involving business owners. The only issue I have is that it didn’t seem to be that difficult a crime to solve. It oozed atmosphere from the award winning cinematography to Quincy Jones’s score and Ray Charles great title song . It did become the first detective story to win a Best Picture Award, and opened the door for future films of this genre to win the big prize.

    Of course, winning Best Picture probably was primarily due to its tackling the racial issue. In that regard, it also was handled quite well. Unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Sidney Poitier‘s character, while once again being an expert in his field, isn’t too good to be true. He has issues with ego and his own prejudices that hinder his investigation. I think it was the first film where a black man slapped a white man. The interplay between him and Rod Steiger’s southern sheriff is beautifully handled. I particularly like the scene at Steiger’s home where they find that they aren’t as different as they may have thought. Still, it doesn’t soft peddle the bigotry that was so prevalent back then. The actual final shot of Steiger turning around and walking away is pretty close to what you were looking for, Matt. Maybe the smile could have been excised, but the carrying of the bags was a nice touch. Both actors excelled throughout. Steiger was particularly effective, toning down his tendency to over-act.

    Norman Jewison is perhaps an underrated director. Having five of you films nominated for Best Picture is quite an accomplishment. I seriously considered going on the Turner Classic Movies Film Cruise this December. Norman Jewison is one of the guests, and I would have loved listening to him.

    Stay safe during the storm. Back-up your Blog :)