In his review of Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune, Charles Taylor conveys a description of the difference between racism in the North and racism in the South: "In the South...white people don't care how close black people get as long as they don't get too high; in the North it's just the opposite." This was still the case in the late-90s, at the time Altman's film was released. And it was certainly true in 1967, as Pictures at a Revolution makes clear, when a movie depicting a black detective from Philadelphia investigating a murder in Mississippi hit the sweet spot between popular success and Oscar contender.
In the Heat of the Night
- Even in 1965, John Ball's mystery novel, In the Heat of the Night, didn't add anything revolutionary to what Mark Harris calls the subgenre of African-American mystery fiction. Authors like Donald McNutt Douglass, Ed Lacy, and Chester Himes had written award-winning novels featuring black detectives and police officers for years, yet "what made (their) novels strong on the page -- the specificity and 'blackness' of their worldview -- is exactly what kept filmmakers away." Nowadays, for all of Walter Mosley's success in the same genre (and Carl Franklin's superb adaptation of Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington, which sadly bombed at the box-office), it's apparent little has changed.
- Ball's novel, however, was more accessible to Hollywood. The author, who was white, wrote in a sparse prose that didn't editorialize the relationship between the black detective and the white Southern sheriff who are forced to work together to solve a homicide; it merely presented events in the narrative as they unfolded.
- Sidney Poitier, whose frustration at "becoming complicit in a fantasy designed to explain to white America that racism was wrong because it meant mistreating someone as free of human flaws and foibles" as he himself was purported to be was reaching a breaking point (cf. Tiger Woods), is surprisingly given little voice as to what he thought about playing Virgil Tibbs, the blank slate African-American policeman from the novel, other than Harris implies he signed on right away. Perhaps, having evaded disaster by being written out of Doctor Dolittle as Rex Harrison's native African sidekick, Poitier counted his blessings for becoming the first black actor to headline a detective movie. The search for a counterpart to play Chief Gillespie, the sheriff of the Mississippi town, would continue.
- I've seen In the Heat of the Night maybe four or five times. It's a good movie, certainly not a great one; far more accurate than Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in its depiction of race relations, not a cinematic watershed the way Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were in the same year. Yet I wonder if it wasn't a trailblazer, in its own understated way, as an interracial buddy movie and a fish-out-of-water film?
- If so, much of the credit goes to screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who fleshed out both Tibbs and Gillespie on the page. In the novel, Tibbs was from Pasadena; in Silliphant's original treatment, he was from Harlem; eventually, the compromise became Philly. Silliphant also made Tibbs more angry than he was in the book, and made the prejudices aimed at him -- toward his social standing --a more pervasive threat.
- Virgil Tibbs became an interesting character for Poitier: in the wheelhouse of his previous cool-headed roles (like the line in Singin' in the Rain: "Dignity...always dignity"), yet with more rage coiled beneath the surface. As a related aside, it's amusing to see how the marketing of the character --
-- has been altered in keeping with the times:
- Norman Jewison, known at the time for directing The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen and the out-of-nowhere Cold War comedy hit The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming with Alan Arkin, chose In the Heat of the Night as his next project (against the advice of his agent, who warned it was a small film). Jewison was, then and now, an intelligent and extremely affable filmmaker (see his engaging interview with Robert Osborne on TCM), not groundbreaking in terms of vision or technique, but unlike Stanley Kramer skilled enough to incorporate social issues at the service of a story.
- For all his even temperament, Jewison also possessed reserves of steel and daring. He encouraged DP Haskell Wexler, fresh off his heated battles with Mike Nichols on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to shoot In the Heat of the Night in color, then an unconventional choice for a "serious movie." Jewison also bucked the establishment by casting the blacklisted actress Lee Grant in a small but crucial part as the wife of the murder victim.
- Jewison's most important collaborator on In the Heat of the Night was none other than Hal Ashby, credited as the editor of the film (as well as Cincinnati Kid and The Russians Are Coming) yet highly active in all facets of production. I enjoyed Harris's description of Ashby as "a rarity in mid-1960s Hollywood: a day-in, day-out pothead who was also a workaholic"...and "whose commitment to recreational drugs didn't seem to impede his skill as a superb detail man, to take care of every loose end.
- Ashby, of course, would go on to direct a remarkable string of essential American films in the 1970s (The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, Being There) and whose body of work is enjoying a renaissance today.
- Rod Steiger, who was enjoying an amazing run of his own as an untamable, chamelon-like Method actor (a Holocaust survivor in The Pawnbroker, a gay mortician in The Loved One, a Russian aristocrat in Dr. Zhivago), signed on to play Chief Gillespie after George C. Scott turned it down. Steiger, who would emerge late in life as a relatively more stable version of his On the Waterfront costar Marlon Brando, has a lively interview of his own that pops up from time to time on TCM, where he discusses his preparation for the role.
- According to Steiger, he had trouble relating to the racist Gillespie and needed something physical as a gate of entry. After dismissing Jewison's suggestion that he smoke a cigar, he took the director's idea that he instead chew gum and ran with it.
- Steiger is a lot of fun to watch in the movie: the way he slows down or accelerates the gum-chewing to convey Gillespie's thought processes; his growing frustration at how every well-meaning overture toward Tibbs gets interpreted (correctly) as bigotry.
- Poitier "was unprepared for the Method-driven intensity that Steiger was bringing" to the movie -- remaining in character off-camera as well as on- -- and rose to the challenge by pushing himself farther than he had ever gone as an actor. Harris cites the key moment as the excellent scene where Gillespie and Tibbs appear on the verge of bonding over a drink, only to have Gillespie abruptly rebuff Tibbs' empathy.
- In the Heat of the Night was shot almost entirely in Sparta, Illinois, to meet Poitier's understandable condition that the production stay above the Mason-Dixon line. Nevertheless, Jewison did manage to persuade him to film the pivotal sequence where Tibbs squares off with a plantation owner in rural Tennessee. For two sleepless nights, Poitier holed up in his hotel room with a gun under his pillow. Jewison worked fast during the day and got Poitier back to Illinois as soon as possible.
- Although the above scene, with its famous exchange of slaps between the plantation owner and Tibbs, is still compelling to watch, it caused audible gasps among both white and black moviegoers back then. Initially Jewison was disturbed that their sneak-preview audience in San Francisco laughed throughout the film, but the tuned-in hippie Ashby explained that they were just grooving on the subject of "a smart black cop waiting with ever-decreasing patience for a backward southern sheriff to drag his carcass into the modern world." He assured Jewison, "'They were enjoying the film. They were into it. They get it.'"
- In the Heat of the Night received generally positive reviews, yet many critics "treated the movie as if it had been hatched overnight" in response to the ugly racial clashes of the previous summer. Pauline Kael seemed to understand the movie best, blasting her colleagues for praising it "'as if it had been exactly the kind of picture that the audience was so relieved to discover it wasn't.'"
- Yet In the Heat of the Night was exactly the kind of picture that often finds favor with Academy Awards voters: a box-office success, but not too successful; an espouser of socially liberal values without scaring the hell out of everyone. It tied The Graduate with seven nominations and won a surprising five, including Best Picture. Additionally, Steiger won Best Actor, Ashby for Best Editing, Silliphant for Adapted Screenplay, and Best Sound.
- Naturally, Haskell Wexler's groundbreaking cinematography was ignored by the voters. Wexler, however, would win in 1976 for Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory. Lee Grant, whose bit part helped to revive her career, went on to win Best Supporting Actress in 1975 for Ashby's Shampoo.
- Norman Jewison also enjoyed a productive career, possibly best known for directing the original '68 Thomas Crown Affair starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and the sparkling 1987 comedy Moonstruck.
- Yet Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, two of the most wildly successful actors of the 60s, would both flame out after In the Heat of the Night. Bizarrely, Steiger never gained traction after his Oscar win. After turning down Patton (which was then offered, appropriately, to George C. Scott), he spent years in the Hollywood wilderness before enjoying a mild Hollywood comeback as a supporting player late in his career.
- Poitier's career downturn was due to more complex circumstances. The trap Hollywood and American culture had put him in as a faultless, sexless, raceless icon finally closed in; he made two failed attempts to reprise his most famous character (They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! and The Organization), turned to directing for a spell, then vanished as an actor for over a decade before a welcome if all-too-brief reappearance in the late-80s and 90s. I'm partial to Poitier's supporting performance in the lighthearted heist comedy Sneakers, the most at ease he's ever been onscreen.
- Fittingly, Harris ends Pictures at a Revolution with Poitier's words: "'I guess I was born out of joint with the times. I have not made my peace with the times -- they are still out of kilter. But I have made my peace with myself.'"
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