Stars: Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier
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In 1967 the United States Supreme Court wiped out laws banning interracial marriage, and segregation became officially unconstitutional a year later. Race was a huge issue, especially when it came to the interaction between blacks and whites. The biggest box-office draw that year was Sidney Poitier, the quintessential black American actor. He starred in no less than three notable films in 1967: To Sir, With Love, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. All were hits as far as both critical acclaim and the box office, and all three dealt obviously with the issue of race. Time was I knew Poitier from latter day fluff like Sneakers but I've made something of an effort to see a lot of him recently in more classic movies and, while almost all his work of the era deals with the racial issue in some way or other, it can in my mind be broken down into two definable categories: verbal and physical.
Some, like Pressure Point and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, address the issue through words. In the latter, Poitier plays a professional man, a doctor, who has become engaged to a white woman and the story revolves around this interracial couple being introduced to each other's parents. The issues are deep but the treatment is civilised. In Pressure Point, the words are more brutal because the civility is gone. Bobby Darin, of all people, is a racist prisoner who Poitier, as a prison psychiatrist, has to work with to try to understand his racism. On the other hand, in films like In the Heat of the Night and The Defiant Ones, the characters get down and dirty and back up their words with actions. They play to our gut as well as our intelligence. In The Defiant Ones, Poitier is a escaped convict on the run who just happens to be chained to another escaped convict, a white racist played by Tony Curtis. The two swap words alright, but also blows and seriously dangerous situations, on their way to a sort of shared understanding of each other.
All of these films are excellent, but In the Heat of the Night is the best of the bunch, possibly the hardest hitting racial drama of the classic era, not least because of the names involved and for a couple of rather notable and frankly unprecedented scenes. Here Poitier plays a black man way out of his territory and caught up in a world he thought he'd left behind. In Philadelphia he's a respected homicide detective where, he famously highlights, 'They call me MISTER Tibbs!' But in this story he's in Sparta, Mississippi, way below the Mason-Dixon line, visiting his mother. Here he's nothing but a suspect in a murder case, who the local cops pick up purely because he's black and he has money in his pocket. When they discover that he's really a cop, his boss asks him to help out with the investigation because he's so much more experienced than any of the local law enforcement. Naturally this leads to a long series of highly tense encounters on the way to finding the real killer.
Poitier is superb, as he seemingly always was. Given the roles he was almost typecast into were by definition deep and meaningful ones, I've always been surprised that he could be overlooked for Oscars so often. 1967 saw him star in three major films, be the biggest box office draw of the year and act alongside the winners for both Best Actor and Best Actress without being even nominated himself. To give the Academy some credit, they had honoured him four years earlier for Lilies of the Field and he had also been nominated in 1959 for The Defiant Ones, marking the first times that a black man had been nominated for or won a competitive Oscar. Only James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel had won before Poitier. Baskett's award for Song of the South was honorary and while McDaniel won for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind, she wasn't even allowed to attend the film's premiere in Atlanta because of Georgia's segregationist laws. Such was the time.
Here Poitier's character struggles with civility in the face of blatant prejudice. Virgil Tibbs is obviously and understandably seething for much of the movie but he keeps a veneer of control even when provoked. That's not an easy balance to keep, for both Poitier and Tibbs, and the one time he slips really shocks us because it's the only time he slips. This is one of many magic moments that In the Heat of the Night gives us, when he reacts by instinct to slap a white man who has slapped him. I watched the film at home on television in 2004 but I could still hear the shocked sounds of surprise echoing down the years from the 1967 theatrical audience. Eric Endicott, a wealthy Southern plantation owner, is palpably stunned into inaction when Tibbs slaps him back and Chief Bill Gillespie, the local sheriff, is stunned too. When he finally collects his senses, Endicott points out to Tibbs, 'There was a time when I could've had you shot.'
Poitier gets many tough scenes here, not least when Endicott sends a gang of thugs after him aiming to inflict some serious damage in retaliation, but there's toughness in the growing relationship between him and the redneck sheriff too. After he's slapped back, Endicott asks Gillespie what he's going to do about it. He answers simply, 'I don't know.' When Mayor Webb Schubert asks him what made him change his mind about Tibbs, he replies, 'Who said I did?' The mayor points out that the 'last chief we had would've shot Tibbs two seconds after he slapped him and claimed self defense.' After Gillespie saves Tibbs from Endicott's mob, he orders him to leave town, but Tibbs, who wanted out from moment one, refuses to do so until he's solved the case, even though the danger he's in increases with the length of time he's there.
However as great as Poitier is, and he's blisteringly good, he's playing second fiddle here to Rod Steiger as Chief Gillespie. In the Heat of the Night won a whole slew of major awards around the world, including five Oscars and three Golden Globes, but a quick glance down the list shows Rod Steiger winning most of them, and in a really tough year too when there was a lot of strong competition. At the Academy Awards he was up against Warren Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde, Paul Newman for Cool Hand Luke, Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate and Spencer Tracy for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Every one of those actors could have won and deserved it. The weakest candidate was probably Spencer Tracy, but he was recently deceased and he was nominated for his final film. As it turned out, Steiger won at the Oscars and pretty much everywhere else, while Tracy won only by proxy, his long term lover and co-star in the film, Katharine Hepburn, winning for Best Actress instead.
Steiger plays the nearest I've seen to a precode leading role from the sixties. He's a bigot, pure and simple, but he's an honest bigot. He has the strength to ask for help when he knows that Tibbs can provide it but the character to remain the local white trash sheriff regardless. As one of the most noted method actors, Rod Steiger stayed in role throughout filming, even on days off, including the southern accent he affected for the part, and this style apparently impressed and influenced Poitier to a large degree. The result is possibly the greatest individual acting performance I've ever seen, with the only competition I can think of coming from Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. No wonder Poitier regards this as his favourite film: he's a legendary dramatic actor appearing in a legendary dramatic film and getting a lesson in masterclass acting in the process.
Steiger was solidly established in 1967. His second film was On the Waterfront in 1954 and he worked up through films as diverse as the musical Oklahoma!, Sam Fuller's fascinating western Run of the Arrow and the late Humphrey Bogart film The Harder They Fall. His two films prior to this were David Lean's sprawling epic Doctor Zhivago and Tony Richardson's bizarre satire The Loved One. Here in something different again, he's simply a joy to watch as every movement is a calculated piece of acting while still appearing to be utterly natural. Director Norman Jewison suggested he should chew gum and so he did, all the time, working through no less than 263 packs during the shoot, but we can gauge his mood from the speed of his chewing. His pauses are as important as the moments he speaks and there are some very cool scenes where he shows his bigotry without saying a word.
He also gets most of the rest of those magic moments: when he finds out that Tibbs is a cop, when he catches a prisoner on the bridge without exerting himself and especially when he realises that in his way, Tibbs is as much of a racist as he is. That's another very special thing about this film. It looks at racism in a far more honest way than any other mainstream movie I can think of. There are a couple of attitudes that have become commonplace and accepted over the years that are thankfully not represented here, namely that members of minorities can't be racists and that all racists are stupid. Many of the characters in this film could certainly do with a few more brain cells and that's made readily apparent, but it's refreshing to see a movie where the leading characters are both intelligent and bigoted at the same time, and especially where one is white and one is black.
Of course these were even less popular opinions back in 1967 and I can't help but wonder just how much impact this film must have had back then and how the leading actors were seen outside of their roles. Certainly the filmmakers didn't even dare shoot in Mississippi due to the existing political climate of the time, and so moved instead to a town in Illinois called Sparta, to which the town's name in the story was changed so as to be able to use existing signs without alteration. It's easy to imagine just how the shooting of the film would have gone had they really gone to Mississippi. All the violence and prejudice hurled at Tibbs in the movie could so easily have been hurled at Poitier during filming and that level of believability is almost unheard of in film, though there are stellar examples of guerilla filmmaking that pushed the envelope. For example, Roger Corman shot his southern racism story, The Intruder, in Missouri without permits and against much public opposition from the locals.
Even with the powerhouse performances of Steiger and Poitier to soar above everyone else, almost the entire rest of the cast managed to make themselves noticed too. Warren Oates is the most dominant as one of Gillespie's deputies, and he's always worth watching, regardless of the quality of the material he has to work with. His films run the gauntlet of quality from Two-Lane Blacktop and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia all the way down to Chandler and Dixie Dynamite. I still have two of his biggest films to see, The Wild Bunch and Badlands. Probably the most inveterate scene stealer here is Beah Richards, who was Oscar-nominated as Poitier's quietly spoken mother in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Here she plays a mystical backstreet abortionist who contrasts wonderfully with the rest of the action at that point in the film.
These two I knew well, but I've seen many of the rest of these character actors too in so many other, often low budget, films without realising who they were. Ralph, the café owner, is played by Anthony James, who I've seen in everything from Howling IV to Blue Thunder and from High Plains Drifter to The Naked Gun 2 1/2. He even appeared as a sleazy manager in a Poison video! I've seen Arthur Malet, the mortician, again and again from Munster, Go Home in 1966 to Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time in 1991. Most surprisingly, a few actors came to this film directly from major television shows: Lee Grant, the victim's wife, who I know mostly from Damien: Omen II, came from Peyton Place; and Fred Stewart, the doctor, came from Dark Shadows. Neither show could be much more different from In the Heat of the Night.
At the end of the day, what rings out above all about In the Heat of the Night isn't the astounding performances given by Poitier and especially Steiger, it's the fact that nobody lets the side down. The quality is apparent in the script, adapted by Stirling Silliphant from the novel by John Ball, and in the editing by future director Hal Ashby, both of whom won Oscars for their work. Norman Jewison lost out as Best Director to Mike Nichols who may really have won as a consolation for not winning a year earlier for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The quality extends to the theme song by Ray Charles, which sounds a lot better than the unaccompanied theme Poitier sang himself for The Defiant Ones, and the excellent score by Quincy Jones was nominated for a Grammy. I can't think of another film in this list, with the possible exception of 12 Angry Men, in which every single person involved shone so brightly.