Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Day 20: In the Heat of the Night
"I got the motive which is money, and the body which is dead."
In the Heat of the Night is an undeniably groundbreaking film. The fact that it was made in 1967 gives it a verisimilitude that it wouldn't have had were it released further down the road from the Civil Rights movement. It's a first rate mystery and is filled with some of the best performances of the decade by an assortment of wonderful character actors. It still crackles with real racial tension, likely because portions of the American South have remained largely unchanged since the time of this film. It could be set in modern times and be thoroughly believable, a statement that speaks both to the timeless power of the story and the sad state of race relations in this country.
Based on the novel by John Ball, In the Heat of the Night tells the story of a small town called Sparta, Mississippi where a wealthy businessman who has come from the north to build a factory and create jobs, has turned up murdered on Main Street. The police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) thinks this is a pretty open and shut case when one of his deputies, Sam Wood (Warren Oates) turns up with a black man who was found alone in the train depot shortly after the murder. The black man turns out to be Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a homicide detective from Philadelphia, who finds himself in the wrong place and the wrong time. After clearing up his identity, Tibbs is instructed by his police chief to stay in Sparta an help them solve the mystery.
Tibbs is an outsider by virtue of the color of his skin, but also because he seems to be the only sensible human being in town. He performs an autopsy, questions suspects, gathers evidence and actively tries to solve the murder, while everyone else on the police force of Sparta is looking for a quick and simple solution. The fact of the matter is that there is no simple solution to this crime. There are lots of people in town with motives, not the least of which seems to be Endicott (Larry Gates) the wealthiest man in town who doesn't cotton to outsiders and would likely want to stub out anyone he viewed as competition.
Several trails run cold, even as Gillespie seemingly tries to pin the murder on anyone he can, but Tibbs continues his investigation in spite of the overwhelming odds against him. I hadn't seen the movie before yesterday, so I don't want to spoil the ending, but it's a very satisfying conclusion and Tibbs' determination to find the killer carries the story along.
Rod Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor and it's easy to see why. His performance is big, boisterous, showy and all the things that make for an award winning performance. He doesn't deliver the kind of nuance that Dustin Hoffman brought to Ben Braddock, but his performance is outstanding in spite of the fact that I was almost constantly aware that I was watching an actor give a performance.
Sidney Poitier is also outstanding in a role that was as dangerous as could be imagined at the time. The role, as written, requires him to be a model of virtue and truth because audiences of the day couldn't handle a black character with true depth of feeling, lest he end up being branded an "angry black man." Thankfully he doesn't play the character that way. His stoic demeanor is clearly concealing the rage he surely feels but can't express, and Poitier is a savvy actor who knows that he must walk a very thin line, and he does so masterfully, never turning Tibbs into the stereotypical "Magical Negro."
Much like Crash in 2005, I think that this film was awarded the Best Picture Oscar more as a pat on the back for Hollywood to give itself, than a virtue of its artistic merits. In the Heat of the Night is a very good movie, but the direction, editing and pacing are pedestrian at best. It breaks ground socially without ever bringing anything new to the equation of filmmaking. It suffers from being merely a very good movie that people could feel good about rewarding, rather than risk being labeled social pariahs for selecting a film that was truly groundbreaking in its reinvention of the style and business of film itself like The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde were. Even Cool Hand Luke which wasn't nominated for Best Picture had style in spades and is still viewed as a truly great film.
I'm underselling the film, it's really fantastic and will hold you riveted by the mystery at its core. When viewed through the prism of hindsight however, it's a good film surrounded by some great films. I can't begrudge the film that as it is a landmark and deserves its place in Hollywood history. Stirling Silliphant's screenplay is excellent and the film is populated with some great characters like Ralph Henshaw, the waiter at the diner, and Harvey Oberst, a kid who gets locked up as a suspect and ends up forming a solid relationship with Tibbs who is immediately convinced of his innocence.
Watch In the Heat of the Night, particularly if you haven't before, and marvel at how far ahead of its time it is. Tomorrow I continue my examination of the 67 Best Picture race with Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.