Friday, July 18, 2014

In The Heat Of The Night (Best Picture 1967)

This week we have arrived at one of the great Academy Award years in history. The 1968 nominees, awards, and ceremony had so much going on with them that the year merits its own book, Pictures At A Revolution by Mark Harris. Basically, Harris argues that 1967 was the first year that Old Hollywood and Young Hollywood really clashed. If you are a film history buff, you will enjoy this book. I absolutely recommend it.

To summarize the main issue: Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were on one side of the aisle, the Young side, and Doctor Doolittle and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner were on the other. So guess who won? Yes, the vote-splitter, In The Heat Of The Night. Want to start a fight with your favorite film freak? Remind him/her that The Graduate lost to In The Heat Of The Night. Just stay back, because spittle does fly.

As for me, I love this film. Full disclosure: ITHOTN is one of only five Best Pictures I actually own. 

For the first time since 1961's The Apartment, a non-musical Made in USA drama set in current-day won the Best Picture Oscar. ITHOTN starts with a train arriving into town. Then we immediately join a cop in this small town during his nightly rounds. Except tonight, Officer Sam Wood finds the dead body of the Yankee investor. Police Chief Bill Gillespie takes over the investigation, telling Sam to check the train station. There, he finds a black man with a wallet full of money. Sam takes him in for questioning, assuming he is the murderer. At the police station, however, the suspect is allowed to introduce himself as a homicide detective from Philadelphia! In one of the great scenes in the film, the Chief taunts the detective about his name, Virgil Tibbs. "What kind of name is that? What do they call you up there in Philadelphia?" the Chief sneers. Virgil nearly screams, "They call me MISTER Tibbs!" Both hope that they have seen the last of the other. However, the widow of the murdered man is impressed by Tibbs' quiet professionalism and insists that he work on the case. The mayor talks the Chief into agreeing to this, to either use Tibbs as a scapegoat if he gets it wrong or to bask in the praise if he gets it right. So we have our dual dramas established pretty quickly: Who killed Mr. Colbert, and can Virgil figure it out before the whole town lynches him?

Although many people say that The Graduate or Bonnie & Clyde were better films, ITHOTN is not a bad choice. First of all, it's a pretty good murder mystery. Did you figure out who had killed Mr. Colbert? My guess is that there were so many red herrings that you didn't. Secondly, it is an awesome character study of the two leads. One is a fish out of water: a black man from the North not used to having to cow-tow to ignorant racists. Virgil is smarter and richer than the majority of the population of Sparta, Mississippi, and the white people there don't like to be reminded of that fact. Everywhere he goes he is met with resistance and hostility, and yet he perseveres. The other is a man being pulled in conflicting directions: he wants to believe that all black men are stupid, but he is being shown daily that this assumption is totally incorrect. He is being ordered to solve the murder case, but knows he can't do it without Tibbs' help. It's fascinating to watch one of those "good ole' boys," the Chief, as he works with Tibbs. They begin as adversaries, become reluctant partners, and eventually end up as something close to friends. In another of the great scenes in this film, Tibbs is interviewing the richest man in town, Mr. Endicott. When Tibbs' questions sound close to being accusatory, Endicott slaps Tibbs in the face. Without missing a beat, Tibbs slaps the white man right back. In Harris' book Pictures At A Revolution and in some of the DVD commentary, the talk was that this scene was shocking to the audiences of the time. Evidently, this was the first time a major Hollywood film had ever shown a black man hitting a white man. And the most interesting thing about this scene is the Chief's reaction. As soon as he recovers from his shock, Endicott basically tells the Chief to kill Tibbs. Yet, the Chief refuses. I couldn't help but think of Medgar Evars or Emmett Tills, and all the other nameless souls, who were killed for far less than laying a hand on a Mississippi VIP. Times they were a changing....
Moments before The Slap...
If you do not believe ITHOTN deserved its Best Picture, watch it again. This time watch everyone's eyes. Rod Steiger as the Chief goes from concern to confidence to shock to anger to frustration, and all of these emotions are on display in his eyes. Watch Sidney Poitier's eyes, too. As Tibbs he is under constant pressure, and you can see it in his eyes. It is telling that he only really gets to relax during the last scene, on a train leaving Sparta.

Speaking of the train, I liked how it "book-ended" the film: it brings Tibbs to Sparta at the very beginning (we don't know who he is at the time) and then takes Tibbs away at the end. This is as if to tell the audience that we, much like Tibbs, are guests in Sparta and that we are not to overstay our welcome.  Because how the film is set up, and because it is Sidney Poitier, we are immediately asked to identify with this stranger, and see things from his point of view. In another great scene, after Endicott has slapped Tibbs, he rants about how he is going to "get him." The Chief looks at him and says, "You're just like us," meaning, he is as prejudiced against certain people as the Chief is. Watch both actors as they play this scene. It's wonderfully done. And we as the audience have no choice but to look at our own prejudices, too.

Rod Steiger won Best Actor for his role as Chief Gillespie. Watch Steiger in Oklahoma!, On The Waterfront, and The Pawnbroker, then tell me whether he is not a totally different character in each of these films. Steiger never achieved super-star status, but he was always interesting to watch.

This film is very much a snapshot of its time. Watch it today and you are (hopefully) shocked to hear a witness say, "I won't talk in front of the nigger." And I couldn't help but laugh later in the film when Tibbs confronts red-neck racists with a rifle. I thought of the old axiom, "there's nothing a red-neck  fears more than a black man with a gun." Nowadays, of course, we are a nation filled with Virgil Tibbs. Perhaps this film had something to do with that....? By the end of the film, when the Sparta police force and several members of the town have realized that Tibbs is, in fact, smarter than the rest of them, there is a hope that this may lead to better race relations in Mississippi.

This movie was filmed in a town called Sparta, but in Illinois, not Mississippi. Sidney Poitier discussed locations and it was agreed that the film would not be shot in the South. The producers found Sparta, approximately 150 miles from the Illinois-Kentucky border, but were not exactly "welcomed" by the city. One scene, with Tibbs and Gillespie driving through a cotton field, was filmed in Tennessee. The skeleton crew filmed the scene and got out of town as quickly as possible. Director Norman Jewison says that the towns where they did location shooting were not supportive of them being there.

In The Heat Of The Night
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1967*
Produced by Walter Mirish
Directed  by Norman Jewison
Screenplay by Sterling Silliphant

Wow, what a trailer~! This really pushes the action
side of things. I want to see this film!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Bonnie & Clyde
Doctor Doolittle
The Graduate
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

Sadly and ironically, the Academy Awards Ceremony for this year was delayed in April, 1968 because of the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King. Originally the ceremony was going to go on as scheduled, but when several black entertainers cancelled, Academy President Gregory Peck convinced the Academy to post-pone it for a few days until after King's funeral. According to Harris' book, host Bob Hope and several other "old Hollywood" types did not understand "what the fuss was about." Hope actually made several insensitive jokes and comments in his opening monologue about King's murder.

Otherwise, it's easy in hindsight to see that the Academy wanted to please as many people as possible with these nominees. Bonnie & Clyde was famously called "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick" by the New York Times reviewer; he subsequently lost his job, and now most people agree it's a great piece of film-making. The Graduate won Best Director for Mike Nichols, one of the few times Best Director and Best Picture did not match up. If you have not seen The Graduate you should see it. It, like ITHOTN, is a product of its time. I saw it in college and it reminded me of The Catcher In The Rye for a new generation. In my opinion parts of it have aged well, but overall it didn't really "speak" to me. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is a drama about inter-racial marriage, another hot topic in 1967. In fact, it was not until 1967 that the US Supreme Court struck down laws that had made it illegal.This movie is not bad, but it is basically just seven or eight characters sitting around talking about how bad racism is. As a participant in a mixed marriage, I won't say anything against it. However, I prefer ITHOTN. For a more "current" take on this issue, I recommend Guess Who, the 2005 comedy "re-make" starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher. Katherine Hepburn won Best Actress for her role as the mother. Interestingly, Beah Richards was nominated for her role as Sidney Poitier's mother; she also plays an abortionist in ITHOTN and Tibbs calls her character, "Mama." And Doctor Doolittle? How this dull epic managed to crash this group of classic films is beyond me. Hollywood must really have been in love with Rex Harrison.

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