Thursday, May 05, 2011

In The Heat Of The Night 1967

What’s wrong with this movie is this movie. Set in a small sleepy town in the Deep South during the waning but still potent days of segregation, and still a threatening and dangerous place if you’re black comes the debonair and quietly intense Virgil Tibbs played by Sidney Poitier, who has come to the town... to visit his mom. As he sits on a bench outside the empty railroad station late one night waiting for his train that will take him back north he is accosted and arrested by the sheriff’s deputy played by Warren Oats on the suspicion that he’s just murdered a Chicago industrialist who was down there to build a new factory. Poitier who bides his time as he is handcuffed, humiliated and brought before the chief of police played by the gum chewing (this little gimmick got on my nerves after the first 10 minutes) Rod Steiger who also humiliates Poitier by calling him boy and questioning the amount of money he’s carrying. It seems besides being murdered the industrialist was also robbed. Finally Poitier blurts out that he is a homicide detective from Philadelphia and a shocked Steiger can’t seem to understand how a Negro could be a police officer and make $162.00 a week. So doubtful is Steiger that he places a call to Poitier’s commanding officer in Philadelphia just to make sure that he really is who he says he is. Poitier is pressured by his captain to stay and help solve the murder, which at first Steiger resists but he finally gives in, and this is what sets the film in motion. The film directed by the light weight director of mostly fluff Norman Jewison tries to get steam out of this kettle but the murder is flat and flabby, and didn’t grab me the way it should. It also is a “political” and socially conscious film but it’s so full of stereotypes that it doesn’t work on that level either. Poitier of course has some bad run in’s with racists teens not once but twice, and the second time was not necessary. There is also the famous slap down between Poitier and a rich racist cotton tycoon played by the always good Larry Gates who thinks nothing of slapping the uppity “colored” which gets him a good hard slap back from Tibbs. I remember the clapping and applause that this generated from the movie audience back in 1967 when I first saw the film. Steiger as the chief of police bellows and blows hard as usual but he’s more subdued than usual, and makes me think that Jewison must have sat on his chest to him quiet down. This is the film that finally won Steiger his long sought after Oscar which he picked up at the 1968 ceremony delayed 2 days because of the murder of Martin Luther King. The supporting cast is good with Lee Grant in a now you see her now you don’t bit as the industrialists wife who demands that they find the killer of her husband or she will cancel the building of the factory. There is one nice moment late in the film, when Steiger and Poitier spend an evening together at Steiger’s dump of a house, and Steiger opens up telling Poitier how lonely he gets, a real moment in time, in an otherwise ordinary film. This was the big Oscar winner of the year winning Best Picture over the vastly superior and important Bonnie and Clyde, but Jewison lost the director award to Mike Nichols for The Graduate which also would have been a better choice for Best Picture. The film also won Oscars for the adapted screenplay and for Hal Ashby’s smooth editing. Cinematography by the great Haskell Wexler and the title song sung by Ray Charles also give the film a lift.


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