Friday, April 3, 2009
In the Heat of the Night
In the Heat of the Night, winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1967, features Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia policeman detained in the deep south, where he begins to help Chief of Police Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger, solve a murder. Neither of them are happy with the situation, and an uneasy working relationship and begrudging respect persists between them.
The movie begins with the discovery of a dead body and Gillespie's order to arrest anyone deemed suspicious. Tibbs is arrested at the train station without questioning, and when he calls his own chief to get him out of trouble, is told to stay around and help with the investigation.
The investigation is corrupted by both Tibbs and Gillespie's biased viewpoints, Tibbs desperate to pin the murder on a local plantation owner and Gillespie so desperate he immediately jails anyone who looks suspicious and declares the case over. There is also resentment on the part of the white citizens of Sparta, Mississippi who don't like the idea of a black police officer. Even Gillespie's racism comes through occasionally, despite the fact that he knows he needs Tibbs's help.
I was worried that In the Heat of the Night would be one of those important issue films that forget that they are supposed to be telling an interesting story. Crash, perhaps the worst Best Picture winner I have seen, fits into this category. However, the story in this movie is very strong with sensible and yet surprising plot twists. Many scenes which seem unnecessary are later revealed to be of significance, a sign that the script is well-structured. Tibbs is also not just a Black saint, he is a good man and capable at his job, but he is a real person too; he gets angry and scared like any man would under such pressure.
Rod Steiger won an Oscar for his performance as Gillespie, and it is a wonderful display of acting. (As a sidenote, Poitier went un-nominated, apparently because voters split between his roles in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and To Sir With Love. Poitier was actually the number one box office draw for 1967.) Steiger's southern accent feels right, and the wounded pride he infuses into the character is spot on. I found his constant gum-chewing a tad over the top, but there were times when Steiger was able to use even that to express some of his character's wariness and unease.
In the Heat of the Night deals with an important issue, but does so while never neglecting the story it is telling. It features two great performances, and a pretty cool theme song written by Quincy Jones and sung by Ray Charles. For all that it gets 8.7 out of 10.