Saturday, November 13, 2010
In the Heat of the Night
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 75
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Director: Norman Jewison
Star: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant
It’s not just that Virgil Tibbs is a black man. It’s that he’s a black man who represents sanity and logic in a small Southern town full of emotion and anger. The world seems to have passed right by Sparta, Mississippi without taking much notice, and its citizens are trying to convince themselves they aren’t angry about it. But, of course, they are.
While “In the Heat of the Night” goes through the motions of being a mystery, it’s not. There is no possible way a viewer can collect clues and deduce the real killer’s identity, no matter how many Agatha Christie novels he or she has read. It’s a character drama pitting two opposite character types against one another before having them team up for the greater good. Taken on those terms alone, the film is fairly successful, but falls short of true excellence simply because the Tibbs character is so much more interesting than the Sheriff he butts heads with.
Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is arrested for murder near the beginning of the film partially because he is a stranger to Sparta but mostly because he’s a black man. From the moment he is introduced to the town’s Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger), we know that this isn’t going to be a fair fight. Sure, Tibbs is well-dressed in a suit while Gillespie is sweating through his tight police uniform, but it’s about so much more than that.
The writer, Stirling Silliphant, stacks the odds against Gillespie by making him so wrong-headed about every single thing he does during the first half of the movie. For a man with so much experience as a police officer, Gillespie seems to overlook every logical question one would ask about the murder. I know nothing about murder or investigating them, but even I would know to check the wound to see if the killer was left or right handed. But no, for most of the movie Gillespie and his troupe of Andy Griffith-wannabe deputies are so overcome by racism that they can do nothing else but make idiotic decisions and then argue with the (obviously right) black man about everything that comes out of his mouth. In a horribly sloppy move, Gillespie’s character is denied any sort of character development until after he realizes Tibbs might know what he is talking about. All we know about him is that he can’t seem to stop chewing gum in the most annoying way possible at all times. Because of this, we have no reason to invest in the character until it’s too late.
Then again, even if Silliphant would have gone out of his way to weave a three-dimensional character for Steiger to inhabit, Gillespie would still be blown out of the water by his rival. Tibbs is just too strong of a character and Poitier is just too charismatic of an actor for anyone else to successfully steal the screen from him. He’s the rarest of actors, like Ian McShane or Laurence Fishburne, whose presence is so strong that viewers have a hard time looking away from him onscreen, no matter what is happening in a given scene.
Jewison inherently understands this and often just keeps his camera on Poitier no matter what is going on. Look at the moment where Poitier must inform the dead man’s widow (Lee Grant) that her husband has been murdered. Instead of cutting to Grant’s face as she gets the news, Jewison just stays on Poitier until the very end of the scene, finally lingering on Grant now that Poitier has left the room.
Jewison’s camera moves quite a bit in the movie, giving viewers long takes that move back and forth to whatever is most interesting. My favorite shot in the movie is a long take that follows Tibb’s hands as they explore a dead body, twisting muscles and exploring skin color as Tibbs tries to make sense of the death. His lack of editing also allows from some wonderful surprises. For instance, in the scene where a white man slaps Tibbs only to immediately be slapped back, the viewer would expect several cross-cuts to close-ups and medium shots for added impact. Instead, Jewison just holds the camera on the men, making Tibbs’ retaliation against the slap much more startling.
From the moment we discover Tibbs in a train station, we know where the story is heading. He will face a lot of racism and opposition from the sheriff and the rest of the town but his logic and insistence on the truth will finally win Gillespie over, allowing them to team up to catch the real killer. The story doesn’t veer at all from the team-up routine, so I began to focus more attention on the murder mystery. The investigation in kind doesn’t start until about an hour into the movie, and even then there are a bunch of sloppy inconsistencies. The police catch a suspect after a harrowing chase through the forest and banks of a river, and we can plainly see the suspect getting his hands in mud and dirt. But moments later when Tibbs checks under his fingernails all he finds is chalk. Huh, that’s odd.
Other details, mostly involving Tibbs and Gillespie, the movie gets just right. It’s fantastic to see the building fury on Gillespie’s face when he first realizes that Tibbs makes more money in a week than the sheriff makes in a month, and then he finds out that Tibbs is a police officer. Or when the men drive through a cotton field and you can see Gillespie relishing the opportunity to make a crack about slavery and trying to decide what the perfect words would be to make the most impact. Then there are weird beats, as when the title song randomly plays over the men’s drive through that cotton field despite it not being at night nor seeming too hot.
The movie does get much stronger once Gillespie develops a personality other than “I’m a racist and I hate you.” The quiet interaction between Steiger and Poitier in Gillespie’s home is a master course in understated acting, and their parting scene at the train station is more emotional than the movie deserves thanks to the fine acting. You have to wonder just how amazing the entire film would have been if the character tension and interplay from the final third of the movie was present throughout.
My Score (out of 5): ***