IMDB#225 In The Heat Of The Night

Next up is the 1967 classic In The Heat Of The Night, in which I finally am introduced to why Sydney Poitier is awesome (my only previous exposure 1966’s Paris Blues with Paul Newman, but even that was chopped down on broadcast tv). Other questions discussed today: Is racism bad? What ever happened to movie theme songs? And why does incessant gum-chewing send me into fits?

(answers: Yes, it is; they're only in Bond movies now; and because I'm slightly crazy.)

The Key Players:

Our director, Norman Jewison, a long-storied director and producer of everything from Cold War satire (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming) and an adaptation of Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar to racially charged dramas like 1999’s The Hurricane and today’s subject, for which he was a Best Director nominee. He’s also a regular source of inspiration for modern unnecessary remakes, as he directed the original Thomas Crown Affair and the thriller Rollerball, and you know what they say about imitation.

Poitier, of course, is the Jackie Robinson of the Oscars, winning a statue for Lillies Of The Field, and with two other successful 1967 films (To Sir, With Love and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), the top box-office star of the year- and keep in mind this is when Will Smith was negative one year old. Sharing the screen is Rod Steiger in an Oscar winning role. Steiger appeared in over 100 films, garnering Oscar nominations in On The Waterfront and The Pawnbroker and putting in a memorable turn in Doctor Zhivago.

In a fun turn of top 250 countdown synergy, In The Heat Of The Night was edited by Hal Ashby (director of #249), and scored by Quincy Jones (who also scored #247- which also had Scott Wilson in it, who has a minor part in Heat).

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The Story:

A bumbling Barney Fife type policeman in the sleep small town of Sparta, MS, stumbles upon a body on his night patrol- the local police chief (Steiger), an abrasive Southern SOB if there ever was one, is quick to point the finger at a black man (Poitier) picked up waiting for a 4:05 AM train out of town at the local station.

Stieger quickly discovers he’s accused not just a police detective from Philadelphia, but that city’s pre-eminent homicide expert- he grudgingly asks Poitier to help investigate the murder, since the victim is a businessman who was in the process of creating a factory vital to the town’s future.

After Poitier proves the first suspect that Steiger brings in to be clearly innocent (when Steiger and all the cops had been happy enough to just assume guilt and call it a day), the victim’s widow insists Poitier lead the investigation- an uneasy working alliance forms between our principled hero and the heavily prejudiced police chief.

It’s quickly apparent, however, that the case is bigger than it appeared, and that Steiger’s far from the worst kind of bigotry that Poitier will have to face.

The Artisticness:

In The Heat Of The Night begins, somewhat oddly from my perspective, with the song “In The Heat Of The Night” sung by Ray Charles over the credits. The song recurs briefly, during a driving interlude halfway through, and again at the end of the film. It’s a great song and all, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the grimmer mood of the film- though that might be a matter of perspective. The film is brightly lit, most of the time, and visually has more in common with a detective series than a dramatic film.

That might be because the story’s emphasis is on the murder, largely, with the racial strife as a constant undertone- but we don’t meet Poitier until twenty minutes into the film when he’s rounded up by the deputy. But his presence immediately dominates the proceedings- never have I seen anyone act with a steely-eyed glare.

Steiger does a great job, himself, but I certainly can’t see why he gets an Oscar over Poitier. It might be because the whole “good ole boy bigot who realizes there are worse demons than negroes in the world” has been done to death, but I imagine it hadn’t in 1967.

Plus, I don’t know if this was in John Ball’s original novel or not, but good god why did Steiger have to constantly chew gum? And not a lazy, southern laconic gum chewing, but a rapid, nervous, grating habit that made me want to punch a wall. I know that’s a personal thing, but I would seriously have trouble watching this film again because of it. (Another thing I skip- the very end of A Clockwork Orange where Malcolm McDowell is chewing extra loudly- that makes me convulse. Does anyone else have little annoyances that they hate to see portrayed in films?).

Otherwise, I really liked the visual detail of In The Heat Of The Night- it starts with a fly on a calendar, it closes in on Poitier’s hands as he inspects the corpse, or the hands of workers in a cotton field as they drive by.


The mystery takes some typical twists and turns before Poitier figures out that it was the lanky guy who works in the diner, the first person we actually see on camera. But the real progression is between Steiger and Poitier- Steiger saves him from a mini-lynch mob of four young whites, and they actually sort of open up to one another overnight at Steiger’s house.

When Poitier leaves, Steiger pointedly makes a point of telling him to “take care,” and then they both smile a little too much (I really didn’t buy it completely, I guess I mean to say). But it’s not overdone to the point of a ham-fisted transformation (I’m looking at you, Crash and American History X).


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I’d almost have to say higher, if I knew more about what lies ahead. I enjoyed not only the mystery, but I’d say it’s worth the price of admission for Poitier alone (way to take a stand, I know. Next week, Citizen Kane was a pretty good film).

The Legacy:

Let’s run it down: Five Oscars (Steiger, Ashby for Editing, Sterling Siliphant for Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Picture), NFR preservation, not one but two sequels (the goofily titled They Call Me MISTER Tibbs and The Organization), and it was adapted into a tv series in 1988 with Archie Bunker himself, Carol O’Connor, in the Steiger role.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube

The first confrontation between Poitier and Steiger is rife with tension, and played pretty well by both actors... But oh, the gum chewing.

Leftover Thoughts:

I had been led to expect a much bigger moment for the “They call me Mister Tibbs” line than there actually was, but it’s still a pretty awesome moment.

Quincy Jones, once again, still a really insane choice to score a film. The scene where Steiger chases down a suspect on the Mississippi River bridge had some completely ridiculous music.

Up next on the countdown: Big Fish! That’s a change of pace.

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