Thursday, May 29, 2014


In comparison to its Best Picture colleagues of the 1960s, In the Heat of the Night stands out as a pronounced departure from the musicals and historical epics that so dominated the decade. A topical film told with edge and grit, In the Heat of the Night feels like a page ripped from the diary of its time and plastered up on screen. Despite a twangy soundtrack and some dated dialogue, time has not blunted the film’s taut, suspenseful qualities. Nor has its message of tolerance and respect lost any of its sizzle. Several reasons account for this preservation: characters that matter, electrifying lead performances and an outspoken, truthful depiction of race relations that, refreshingly, doesn’t feel motivated to make any type of a political point. But above all, a great line also improves a film’s chances of retaining memorability, and “They call me Mister Tibbs!” is about as good as it gets, old sport.  

Directed by famed Canadian director Norman Jewison, whose resume includes Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck, as well as some Doris Day flicks, In the Heat of the Night marked his first inclusion into Oscar’s Best Director category. The film’s cast is led by top-drawer talent Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in two career defining performances. Of the two, Steiger arguably has the flashier role, which I think is why he went on to net so many accolades for this role, including the Oscar for Best Actor. What’s strange, outrageous even, is that Poitier’s name was left completely off the short list of Best Actor nominees, especially in light of his strong supporting work that same year in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? I would contend that without Poitier’s formidable presence matching Steiger’s swagger, the latter’s performance would not have been as deftly realized. Its years like this that makes it a shame the Academy doesn’t buck its own rules from time to time and award two Oscars for the same category. 

Based on John Ball’s novel of the same name, In the Heat of the Night is a dramatic mystery yarn marbled with murder, racism and a myriad of false accusations and red herrings. Set in the festering town of Sparta, Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night follows Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia police detective passing through town. While waiting for his train, Tibbs is picked up on false charges for the murder of Mr. Colbert, a white wealthy Chicago industrialist angling to construct a factory in Sparta. After his police credentials check out, the charges against Tibbs are quickly dropped. But feeling the heat after Colbert’s widow threatens to pack up the factory and leave town unless the murderer is found, police Chief Bill Gillespie enlists Tibbs’ help in cracking the case. 

Boiled down to its core, In the Heat of the Night is essentially a whodunit. But what makes it intriguing is that it’s more of a who-cares-whodunit. As an audience, you never meet Mr. Colbert; therefore no emotional investment is ever transacted into this guy. The fact that he’s been bludgeoned on the head only conjures up a fleeting interest in him at best. Snooze right? In all honesty, who really cares who murdered this random person? The film’s true suspense and tension is rooted in the question of whether or not Tibbs and Gillespie will be able to turn a blind eye to their differences and solve this case. Despite his prejudiced attitude towards Tibbs, it’s clear that Gillespie’s nature in this regard is more a product of his environment than a deeply nurtured belief. At heart, he’s a good man who comes to respect and admire Tibbs, despite the periodic emergence of backward thinking. On the other hand, Tibbs is, and rightfully so, a proud, accomplished individual who knows he is heads and tails above any of the doofuses on the Sparta police force when it comes to detective finesse. But the question still looms: Will Tibbs suffer the local yokels in the name of pursuing justice?

As mentioned, Steiger’s police chief Gillespie is the showier part in comparison to Tibbs, and Steiger owns it with complete aplomb. The situation forces Gillespie to have his feet firmly planted on two sides of the racial barrier, which draws out his character in surprising and intriguing ways. Gillespie has to assume a variety of versions of himself from being a diplomat to a referee to a hard-ass police chief all without undermining his own credibility in the eyes of the town. But the scene that hits it home is when Tibbs is at Gillespie’s house and Gillespie exhibits a degree of vulnerability by opening up about his failed marriage and other shortcomings. It adds such an effective dimension to this type of character in a way that is so rarely executed on screen. It’s a high-wire act that could have turned to ash in lesser hands, but Steiger is aces at maneuvering through the complexities in a way that is utterly convincing, old sport.

But as in every buddy cop scenario, the flashier personality depends on a no-nonsense partner to counter his presence and keep the situation steadily on the rails. In this case Sidney Poitier has a tall order to fill, but he proves more than capable of the challenge. Whenever I think of Sidney Poitier, I always think of someone who carries himself with class and dignity, no matter what injustices may be swirling around him. In the Heat of the Night is perhaps one of the strongest examples from his career that allows him to exhibit his abilities of portraying a character of stature and substance. By far the most memorable moment of Poitier’s performance in this film is during a scene when Tibbs is questioning a wealthy, wrinkling plantation owner named Endicott who publicly opposed the murder victim’s intentions to build a factory in town, making him a possible suspect. The series of questions from a black man roils Endicott’s annoyance, causing a splenetic outburst that leads him to slap Tibbs. Without skipping a beat, Tibbs bitch slaps him right back, screeching the proverbial record to a terrifying halt, as the two stare at each other wondering what the hell happens next. The scene surges over with intensity in that moment, creating great a representation of Poitier’s career creed of not letting anyone hang their shit on him, while simultaneously being classy in the process. 

The other performance that I think merits some shine is that of Quentin Dean, who plays a teenage temptress named Delores Purdy whose sexual escapades inadvertently wind up the film’s scenario and letting it go like some toy race car. Dean really only has one scene in the film to speak of, but she is a tornado in the few minutes allotted to her, blowing everyone else off the screen as she skulks and sneers her way through a forced confession of her trampy behavior to Gillespie and Tibbs. In his review of In the Heat of the Night, famed New York Times critic Bosley Crowther referred to Dean’s character as a “slippery little slut,” which I think he absolutely meant as a compliment. Dean basically disappeared from the showbiz landscape after In the Heat of the Night, which is too bad because she got things off to such a promising start. And she ends up being one of the many surprises that make In the Heat of the Night sizzle with suspense and suspicions.

Favorite Line: I know this is unoriginal of me, but “They call me Mister Tibbs!” is just too classic to overlook as a selection for my favorite line in this film. It’s not so much the line itself, but it’s the way Sidney Poitier rolls up the thunder from his belly and releases the words with such striking force. Anyone watching this film wearing a toupee is likely to have it blown right off their noggin when that line reverberates through the speakers.

No comments:

Post a Comment