Thursday, June 3, 2010

In the Heat of the Night

There are two scenes that are etched into my memory with no hope of ever removing them. First, there is a moment when the Police Chief, played perfectly by Rod Steiger, asks Sydney Poitier's character what people call him up North? Poitier responds "They call me Mister Tibbs!". Being a black man in the South he was being called many other things by the local residents and police. The power and frustration that comes through as Tibbs, a Philadelphia Police Detective, finally gets to be acknowledged is overwhelming. So strong that they named the sequel 'They Call me Mister Tibbs'. Second is an interchange when the local bigshot and plantation owner, who is white, slaps the "uppity" Poitier. Poitier slaps him right back. The bigshot is surprised beyond belief. So is Police Captain Gillespie. The thought that some black person wouldn't just take the abuse is something they never considered. Priceless.

In the Heat of the Night is fantastic from start to finish. Two powerful storylines converge in a big finish. We have the plot line of the black, Northern police officer struggling to deal with racism. All the while he has been enlisted by local police to aid in capturing a murderer. Most of the local police are quite disturbed by the idea of a black man, and a "Yankee" at that, to be part of the team. Rod Steiger is terrific and his performance as Police Chief Gillespie won him an Academy Award. You can see the tension that this unique situation causes portrayed upon his face. His mannerisms, inflection and body language play a major part in his performance. Equally wonderful is Sydney Poitier. He shows the frustration and difficulty of being considered inferior, but sublimates that to help solve a murder. The supporting cast, featuring Warren Oates, Lee Grant and Larry Gates add to this rich cinema experience.

While this film won Best Picture, director Norman Jewison did not receive the Best Director statuette. That went to Mike Nichols for 'The Graduate'. But In the Heat of the Night did win five total Oscars. That credit falls firmly on the shoulders of Jewison. He took a taut script from Stirling Silliphant that is based upon the novel by John Ball. Silliphant would later write one of the great disaster films 'The Poseidon Adventure' (read my post). But what 'Poseidon' has in over the top fun, this film has in tension and rich characters. Jewison then adds the deep cast to the script and turns them loose. But all the while he forces the pace. There is little down time here. Just excellent writing, acting and directing that move us ever forward toward the exposing of the murdered.

In the Heat of the Night is powerful. An intriguing murder mystery, the story of the difficulties of racism and the growing admiration between lead characters make for terrific viewing. This film would go on to inspire a long-lived television version starring Carroll O'Connor. Why the tv show is not out on DVD remains a mystery to all.

Filmed in 1967, directed by Norman Jewison, written by Stirling Silliphant, starring Sydney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant and Larry Gates. Jewison also directed another film highlighted here at Steve the Movie Guy. You can read my post on 'Rollerball' here. Trivia Note:Steiger resisted the idea of chewing gum and only adopted the practice upon the insistence of director Jewison. Eventually he grew to appreciate it and went through 263 packs of gum during filming.

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