Sunday, February 15, 2009
Film Ignorance #26: In the Heat of the Night
Film: In the Heat of the Night
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Norman Jewison
Stars: Sydney Poitier, Rod Steiger
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it
Ignorance Rating*: Pending
The setup for In the Heat of the Night is so simple as to be almost high concept. A rich white man is killed in a small Southern town, and the local fuckup cops pick up the only stranger they can find, a well-dressed black man waiting for a 4 am train. To the chagrin of the cops, the man they arrested is Virgil Tibbs, Philadelphia's #1 homicide detective. To the chagrin of both Tibbs and Bill Gillespie, the local redneck police chief, Virgil's Philadelphia police chief does more than confirm his identity: he offers Gillespie his top man for the week. The rich man's widow forces Gillispie to keep Virgil, and thus the most racially charged buddy cop movie ever made is born: Tibbs is stuck in a tiny racist town helping people he knows hate him, while Gillespie has to watch a man he believes to be racially inferior to him display a level of intelligence and competence that is far beyond his own.
This is first and foremost an actors movie, and both Poitier and Steiger shine. Poitier, Hollywood's first major black star, walks through this movie radiating an intense contempt for everyone he has to deal with: Gillespie, Gillespie's men, and all the locals. But it was Steiger who won the Academy Award, and he deserved it. Best known for this movie and as Brando's brother in On the Waterfront, Steiger was always a second fiddle. And Gillespie is possibly his finest hour: an overweight, underpaid small town police captain who loathes Tibbs but must play his caddy and protector for political reasons. This is the flashy role, and Steiger delivers; his distaste for Tibbs and his shame at Tibbs' superiority are palpable in every scene. He has many of the movie's best lines, as he browbeats inferiors, screams ineffectually at Tibbs, and occasionally waxes folksy philosophical.
If you know anything about this movie, besides that it became a bad TV show, you probably know the famous line "They call me Mr. Tibbs." It's no good without the setup:
Gillespie, enraged and shamed, says to Virgil: "Virgil, that's a funny name for a nigger from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?" Virgil puts him in his place, distilling all of Poitier's gravitas in a single line to remind Gillespie which one of them does actual police work: "They call me Mr. Tibbs."
Norman Jewison was nominated for best director for this movie, but he didn't win, which makes sense. Although he brought all the elements together for this crackling battle of wills, the strengths here are the performances and the screenplay, and the camera work and editing are both sometimes clumsy. Throw in a slightly overdone score, and this picture is far from perfect. But it succeeds in a lot of ways, as both a whodunit and as a message picture, and Poitier and Steiger have a level of chemistry rarely seen in any movie.
It's also a very compelling portrait of a steamy, racist Mississippi town, which is surprising: the movie was actually shot in Illinois. Although they were making a message movie, the filmmakers weren't about to risk Poitier's life by asking him to spend an extended period of time in 1967 Mississippi. Damn.
*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.