Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Blind Spot #4: In The Heat of the Night

Written as part of the blogathon hosted by Ryan at The Matinee.
Here's the thing about Norman Jewison's In The Heat of the Night: I always thought it was Carroll O'Connor, TV's Archie Bunker, who played the white Southern cop opposite Sydney Poitier's Virgil Tibbs. It's not. It's actually Rod Steiger. And every time I see him in this film, I can't get O'Connor out of my head, because Steiger looks so much like him. AND, as if to add to my confusion, O'Connor played this part in the 80s TV series based on this film. Mind = BLOWN. It's not necessarily an impediment to watching the film, but it causes such a weird misfire in my brain whenever I see it that I feel like I have to mention it right off the bat, kind of like a disclaimer.

None of this is to disparage Steiger's Oscar-winning performance, which lives up to its reputation. He's incredible here, as the police chief of Sparta, Mississippi who slowly (VERY slowly) wakes up to the fact that maybe, just maybe, African Americans are worthy of the same trust and respect as white people. Or maybe just this one particular African American, played by Sidney Poitier in an incendiary performance. Poitier's barely controlled rage throughout his performance as Virgil Tibbs, Philadelphian police officer caught up in a murder investigation in the racially hostile South is quite a thing to behold.
I was inclined to watch In The Heat of the Night as part of the Blind Spot series after reading Mark Harris's staggering Pictures At A Revolution, a brilliant exploration of the films in the running for Oscar's Best Picture of 1967. I had seen the other four (Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) but not the eventual winner. The book is a must for anyone who loves movies, particularly anyone who loves the Oscars, and is quite a marvel in how it fuses Hollywood history with the story America at large in this time period, one of its most tumultuous. Harris does let his typical journalistic integrity slip a little, though, in that he makes it pretty clear that he would pick Bonnie and Clyde for the win. I'm not sure I agree with that (my pick would probably be The Graduate), but watching this film now, I can't help but agree with the conventional wisdom that this was Hollywood's attempt to keep on the better side of history, while still remaining utterly conservative.

It's not that In The Heat of the Night is a bad film (like its closest analogue the not-quite-as-woeful-as-some-say-but-still-nowhere-near-Oscar-level Crash), it just isn't a particularly revelatory one. While it does handle a very thorny, tricky subject with an almost surprising level of realism (unlike Stanley Kramer's rose-colored-glasses look at similar subject matter that same year, also starring Poitier), there isn't a whole lot of nuance. It paints in rather bolder strokes than I was expecting, given its reputation. For every scene like the famous slapping scene (which prompts a brilliant nearly silent, confused response from Steiger) there's a scene like the also-famous "They call me MISTER TIBBS" scene, which is pitched so high as to almost approach camp. But the atmosphere courtesy of master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, as well as the careful character work done by Steiger and Poitier, keep the film firmly grounded in reality at all times.
But even still, In The Heat of the Night is a murder mystery police procedural, and not a great one. There's tension in the film's most racially-charged scenes, but the murder mystery itself doesn't have any real sense of urgency or danger to it. What makes the film worthy is mostly in the lead performances of Steiger and Poitier. The question then becomes: Are the racial elements and performances enough to lift it above the average police flick? The answer is: Yes and no.

It's near-impossible to separate In The Heat of the Night from its time and place. It might lose something with time, especially in the wake of all the many police procedural stories we've seen since, but in its way it is a groundbreaking film. All the evidence you need of that is to look at Sidney Poitier's filmography: How many times before this did he get to play a competent, but imperfect professional who still got to speak truth to power? Hell, how many times did he get to do so AFTER this? It's not a perfect film about race relations in the 60s, but all things considered it's probably the best we could have gotten: Neither completely cynical nor completely optimistic, the film suggests that everyone has their own prejudices to overcome, and the only way to do so is through respect. I may not love In The Heat of the Night, but I definitely respect it. I may not fully support its Oscar win, but I certainly don't begrudge it.

In The Heat of the Night
Year: 1967
Directed by: Norman Jewison
Screenplay by: Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by John Ball)
Starring: Rod Steiger, Sidney Poitier, Lee Grant, Warren Oates, Larry Gates, Beah Richards
Oscar: 5 WINS - Best Picture, Best Actor (Steiger), Best Adapted Screenplay (Silliphant), Best Sound, Best Editing (Hal Ashby). Nominations for Best Director (Jewison lost to Mike Nichols for The Graduate) and Best Sound Effects (lost to The Dirty Dozen)
Rating: ***1/2


  1. I've heard a lot about this one, and one of these days I probably should try watching it. From what I do know I can see how it might be a product of its time. For one thing, considering it came out in 1967 I have a feeling there isn't much in the way of strong female characters (at least not among the police). On the other hand, one could argue that the film's criticisms of racism are fairly progressive for the same era.

    1. It's definitely worth a watch; the cinematography alone is worthy. Wexler was adamant about using proper lighting to light black skin, and this is one of the first - if not THE first - examples of that. He should have gotten an Oscar nomination.

      There are only two female characters in the film, and while I wouldn't necessarily call them "strong" characters, they each do have strength and power in ways we don't normally see from female characters of the time. Lee Grant in particular gives a great performance in her two short scenes.

      And yeah, the film is fairly progressive for the era (a key plot point in the murder mystery is an abortion, and the word is actually spoken a few times), if not actually as progressive as you might think.

  2. How ironic, I just finished Pictures at a Revolution yesterday! I liked it very much though I didn't always agree with the author's conclusions and impressions. I was led to it though Lee Grant's bio which I read last month. She talked a great deal about the way her small role really turned her film career around and the ridiculous hoops she had to jump through to finally have her name removed from the blacklist to be cast. Pictures came up in a list of similar books on Goodreads.

    This is a good film but literally the middle of the road choice, two of its competing films, The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde were better than it and the other two lesser films. Steiger is terrific and was definitely deserving and Poitier is fine but along with Lee Grant they're really the only reason to watch the film more than once. You're right all the procedurals, including the TV version of this film, have diluted its power.

    I've never connected Steiger and Carroll O'Connor as one, perhaps because even though I've seen him in dozens of other things in the back of my mind the first thing I think when I see O'Connor is Archie Bunker since that was my first real exposure to him but there is a definite resemblance.

    1. Such a great book, isn't it?!? I totally feel the same way about not always agreeing with Harris's conclusions and impressions. Lee Grant had quite the fascinating career - I'll have to seek out her bio.

      The O'Connor-Steiger connection is totally my own thing and it only exists in terms of this role. For some reason I have just always seen pictures of this film and thought it was O'Connor in the role - probably because I first saw them around a time when I was watching All In The Family a lot or something.

    2. It was a fascinating book, in particular I loved the interviews he scored with the participants in the various films. But I had the impression he sneered at older film, in a way considering Dr. Doolittle, an awful film deserving of scorn, as representative of all that came before it. As a huge lover of older films it put me off to a certain extent. I love the new style that emerged in the late 60's into the 70's, although I hate the ridiculous idea of auteurism, but it doesn't make what came before any less valuable, just different stylistically.

    3. I agree with you that the interviews Harris did were incredible. I mean, he basically scored interviews with EVERY major player involved with each of the films. Unbelievable.

      I didn't quite get the impression that he was "sneering" at older film, so much as detailing that the big-budget roadshow style of filmmaking was coming to an end because they were getting overblown (at least in terms of budget), and were in some cases poor decisions. But he does quite obviously subscribe to the auteur theory and was perhaps a bit too dismissive of people he didn't feel fit that mold.

      I do have to say, though: As a kid, I LOVED Doctor Doolittle. Haven't seen it since I was a teenager, though.

  3. This is a good movie, like you say, but it's not a great one at all. Steiger's performance is great though, and I'm glad he won the Oscar.

    1. Yeah, I'm just disappointed Poitier didn't also get a nomination. He's just as good as Steiger is, even if he doesn't get as many of the actorly "moments" Steiger does.