Monday, February 24, 2020

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #236 - In the Heat of the Night (1967, dir. Norman Jewison)

            I grew up watching the In the Heat of the Night television series all through the ‘80s with my parents. As police procedurals go, there wasn’t anything that particularly stood out about it (I’ve seen every episode multiple times and I couldn’t tell you the plot to any of them) other than it starred the genius Carroll O’Connor who we already knew and loved from playing Archie Bunker for all those years, so we just, as a family, liked it a lot. It would be years before I learned not only that there was a film version produced two decades earlier, but that said film version was, oh I dunno, a hundred million trillion times better than the show.
            For one thing the film, directed by Norman Jewison, is not just an effective whodunit, but it also acts as a lesson in civility. It was released in 1967, a time when the Civil Rights Movement was largely just starting to take shape with regards to actual effective legislation. Some sections of the United States, many in the South, were still rife with racial tension and uneasiness from all citizens. For Jewison, a Canadian, to come along and, in a way, hold a mirror up to those areas by portraying the small Mississippi town of Sparta as a cold, intolerant place was kind of a badass move. Sidney Poitier plays the well-read Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs who, while visiting his mother in Sparta, is picked up by a small-time deputy (Warren Oates) as a suspect in the murder of a prominent industrialist. He isn’t doing anything suspicious mind you - other than being black - but again, this is the ‘60s in the deep South so that’s enough. He is taken back to the police headquarters where he meets the other officers and the surly chief of police, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) who is only too eager to assume Tibbs’ guilt as well. Once Tibbs’s alibi is cleared up by his own superior officer, he is asked to assist the Sparta department in their murder investigation; a request he reluctantly agrees to. This is essentially the plot to the pilot episode of the series as well, as they are both based on a novel by John Ball. But that’s really where the similarities end. After the pilot, the series just becomes another yawner prime-time buddy cop drama. The film, a much darker affair, really showcases those racial tensions between the two lead characters, and thus, again, given the time period during which it was released, showcasing the racial tensions in the country at the time. While there is a mutual respect that builds between the two men over the course of the film, they are still not going to be friends. We, the viewers, don’t get the impression at the end that these two are going to even keep in touch, much less continue working together.
            I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting in In the Heat of the Night, which is also top notch. It presents a cast made up of both seasoned veterans and relative newcomers alike. Poitier breathes an ambitious and determined fire into his portrayal of Ball’s Tibbs character, prompting two lesser known but still kind of charming sequels. In some ways, we can see why Gillespie doesn’t like Tibbs. He is arrogant and stubborn, something Gillespie calls him out on almost immediately. Tibbs is supposedly a genius homicide detective, yet he is at first unwilling to help on a case he knows that he can solve. Gillespie only responds with racist remarks because it’s the only defense he knows. And can we just talk about Rod Steiger for a second? Holy shit, that guy, right? It takes a lot for me to prefer an actor over my beloved Carroll O’Connor, but Steiger’s Chief Gillespie is truly one of the greatest characters in film history, something his Best Actor Oscar that he received for it supports. He’s got such a seemingly despicable disposition at the beginning of the film, yet we still kind of root for him because we can tell that, deep down, he is a good law man, a fact that Tibbs also begrudgingly recognizes. By the end of the film, we witness a very real change in him as he becomes more empathetic and more tolerant.
Given that the country continues to struggle with issues of bigotry and racism, especially involving law enforcement, In the Heat of the Night remains an important film with an important message that still resonates in America today. Though some of the ways in which it delivers this message can be a bit dated and gratuitous, it’s still a message that bears repeating.
  - Jonathan Eagle

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