Sunday, February 20, 2011

Review: "In the Heat of the Night" Retains its Heat (Happy B'day, Sidney Poitier)


TRASH IN MY EYE No. 142 (of 2004) by Leroy Douresseaux

In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Running time: 109 minutes (1 hour, 49 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Norman Jewison
WRITER: Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by John Ball)
PRODUCER: Walter Mirisch
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Haskell Wexler (D.o.P.)
EDITOR: Hal Ashby
COMPOSER: Quincy Jones
Academy Award winner

DRAMA/CRIME//MYSTERY

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, William Schallert, Beah Richards, Matt Clark, and Quentin Dean

The winner of five Academy Awards (out of seven nominations) including an Oscar® for “Best Picture” and another for Rod Steiger as “Best Actor,” director Norman Jewison’s film, In the Heat of the Night, remains a potent examination of racism, prejudice, and bigotry nearly four decades after its release. Although Oscar® ignored his performance, Sidney Poitier created one of his signature roles in this film. His Virgil Tibbs is one of the most important and influential Black characters in film history and set a standard for the Black leading man portraying strong, resolute characters.

Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is in the small and sleepy town of Sparta, Mississippi waiting at a train station for a connecting train. After getting harassed and detained by Sam Woods (Warren Oates), a racist cop, Tibbs reveals to Sparta Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) that he is a homicide detective from Philadelphia. Tibbs presence coincides with a grisly murder, and via a set of convenient circumstances, Tibbs stays in town to assist in finding the murderer. During the course of the investigation, Tibbs and Gillespie rub each other the wrong way. Tibbs, however, is determined to solve the case, remaining in the investigation in spite of Gillespie numerous demands that Tibbs leave Sparta, and Gillespie doggedly follows Tibbs every step protecting him from Sparta’s more violent and bigoted citizens determined to kill Tibbs the uppity nigger.

The performances of course are all good, some of them great. Poitier, an actor with a highly mannered style, is perfect in his portrayal of Virgil Tibbs, giving him a proud air necessary for a highly skilled black man who must work with and prove himself to lesser talented white men, who nurse assorted insecurities and skin color hatreds. Poitier’s performance is a delicate high wire act that is occasionally overstated, but is never more so direct and appropriate than when Tibbs returns a slap to the face of a white character. Steiger is also very good. He strains at the seams to unleash the fury in him, kept behind a low key fa├žade, but Stirling Silliphant’s Oscar®-winning script doesn’t give him enough room to really play.

In addition to the film’s social implications, it is flat out a great film. Norman Jewison does a fine job balancing social commentary and displays of ethnic tensions with the necessities of genre conventions, in this case, the characteristics of crime fiction. In the Heat of the Night is also an intriguing mystery story that keeps you guessing to the end right along with Tibbs – whodunit?

9 of 10
A+

NOTES:
1968 Academy Awards: 5 wins: “Best Picture” (Walter Mirisch), “Best Actor in a Leading Role” (Rod Steiger), “Best Film Editing” (Hal Ashby), “Best Sound” (Samuel Goldwyn SSD), “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium” (Stirling Silliphant ); 2 nominations: “Best Director” (Norman Jewison) and “Best Effects, Sound Effects” (James Richard)

1968 BAFTA Awards: 2 wins: “Best Foreign Actor” (Rod Steiger) and “UN Award” (Norman Jewison); 2 nominations: “Best Film from any Source” (Norman Jewison) and “Best Foreign Actor” (Sidney Poitier)

1968 Golden Globes: 3 wins: “Best Motion Picture – Drama,” “Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama” (Rod Steiger), and “Best Screenplay” (Stirling Silliphant); 4 nominations: “Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama” (Sidney Poitier), “Best Motion Picture Director” (Norman Jewison), “Best Supporting Actress” (Lee Grant), and “Best Supporting Actress” (Quentin Dean)

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