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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night--Poitier and Steiger                          
It's been almost twenty years now, but back during the latter part of the last century when I still taught school, I had a unit in each of my art classes I called "Movies as an Art Form." Each semester I taught an age appropriate classic film, which I played from VHS tapes in half-hour segments accompanied by a study guide with around a dozen questions tied to each segment as a means of helping students take notes. Once they'd viewed each segment I went over the study guide with them to help them stay on top of what they'd just seen. At the end there was a test allowing students to use the study guide they'd filled out while watching the film.
Philadelphia homicide detective, Virgil Tibbs and Sparta Police Chief, Bill Gillespie.
Heat movie poster, 1967
For the tenth grade (Art II) class we studied two films, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. It was no accident both starred Sidney Poitier (filmed back to back in 1966-67) nor that both dealt with civil rights and race relations. The approach was different. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a relatively short, intelligent, drawing room comedy, dealing with interracial marriage, the last pairing of film icons Spencer Tracey an Katherine Hepburn. (Tracey died shortly after filming was completed.) In the Heat of the Night, by way of contrast, was a raw, sharply honed, murder mystery set in the deep South during the early 1960s. It paired Poitier and Rod Steiger in two of the best roles either actor came by during their entire careers. Steiger won an Academy Award as best actor for his portrayal of a deeply flawed, highly prejudiced, small town police chief. Poitier had already won an Academy Award for his role in Lilies of the Field in 1963 (the first African-American to win a Best Actor Oscar).
Actress Lee Grant, the vulnerable widow and powerful heiress.
Actress Lee Grant's portrayal as the widow (above) of the murder victim, a wealthy Chicago industrialist, is pivotal, yet understated. She is, in fact, the driving force behind the unlikely, and highly contentious pairing of Tibbs and Gillespie. Two scenes stand out in the film, the greenhouse confrontation with plantation owner, Eric Endicott, and Tibbs' outnumbered standoff with Endicott's thugs in an abandoned railroad shop (below). The film broke new ground in that it was the first in which a white man (Endicott) slaps the face of a black man (Tibbs) only to have him return the favor with impunity (click on the film clip at the bottom).
Tibbs: outnumbered, his back literally against the wall.
Producer, Walter Mirisch
Both of these civil rights era films dealt with controversial topics. The racial content of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was easier to take, set as a light comedy, and boasting such important film stars from previous generations. In the Heat of the Night was tough drama, dealt with in frank, hard-edged, even offensive terms so packed with controversy the film almost didn't get made. The major studios wouldn't touch it. Only the independent production company of Walter (right), Marvin, and Harold Mirisch was daring enough to take on such a hard-edged handling of what was, essentially, a crime drama laden with multiple layers of racial prejudice. With a $2-million budget, the film was a sizable risk. The screenplay, written by Stirling Silliphant, of The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure fame, pulled no punches (or more accurately, slaps). This was a man's movie as compared to the more feminine approach of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Steiger, as Police Chief Bill Gillespie, though having the occasional "human" moments in the film, was not a character easy to like. Poitier, as a Philadelphia homicide detective simply passing through town, though somewhat warmer, but just as tightly wound, was only slightly more likable. Neither played people you'd want to cross.
The "heat" In the Heat of the Night.
Jewison, Steiger, and Poitier
Director Norman Jewison came to In the Heat of the Night with a pair of pretty decent hit films in his pocket: The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and the hilarious The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming! (1966). Later he would add such hits as The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), F.I.S.T (1978), ...And Justice for All (1979), A Soldier's Story (1984), Agnes of God (1985), Moonstruck (1987), Other People's Money (1991), The Hurricane (1999) and The Statement (2003). Virtually all his films have dealt with important religious, ethnic, or social issues.

The movie (top) the TV show (bottom)
In the Heat of the Night, with it's tense, southern musical score by Quincy Jones, was released in August, 1967, putting Poitier in the position of competing with himself at the box office. His previous film, To Sir with Love, was still playing in theaters. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture, Steiger's Best Actor Oscar, Best Screenplay (Silliphant), Best Sound, and Best Editing. Jewison was nominated as best Director but lost to Mike Nichols for The Graduate. The Mirisch Corporation did well for their $2-million risk, reaping not just a Best Picture Oscar but some $24-million in ticket sales. Two sequels followed, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs (a line from the original film) and the less successful, The Organization. The television series, In the Heat of the Night, produced by Fred Silverman, starred Carroll O'Connor as Gillespie, and Howard Rollins as Tibbs. It ran for six seasons, but was a pale ghost of the movie. I always thought Carroll O'Connor smiled way too much.

The expressions and the body language in the final scene speak volumes.
"Virgil? You take care now, y'hear",
The famous "slapping" scene:


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