January 03, 2014

In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night (1967) is about a black Philadelphia detective named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, the wrong place being the Deep South and the wrong time being circa 1967. More specifically, he's sitting in a train station--having just visited his mother--in the wee hours of the night waiting for the 4:05 to Memphis, when a local police officer comes by and decides that Virgil is probably responsible for the murder of a prominent citizen earlier in the evening. After all, Virgil's black, he's well-dressed, and he's apparently not from around here. It's airtight.

Does this cop question Virgil? Not even a little. He sizes Virgil up, he with his polished suit and good grammar, and pure contempt shuts down any reasonable thought from happening inside this cop's brain. Virgil is arrested and brought to the police chief, played by Rod Steiger. Soon enough, they find out Virgil's identity, and he goes from suspect to investigator, assisting the chief in the murder case (at the assistance of Virgil's own police chief back home). Steiger's character has to do a considerable amount of pride-swallowing to ask for help from a man who's apparently the top homicide investigator in Philadelphia and a black man. The rest of the film is about the investigation and the tension between Virgil and this police chief (and Virgil and the whole damn town). Rod Steiger gives us the pleasure of watching moral uncertainty gnawing away at a man who has up until now lived in the sure-footed, ignorant but safe pleasure of White People Are Superior County, occupation 1200. 

In the Heat of the Night (1967) is really a testament to the work of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the sharp edges of the Deep South without condescending in any way to the characters or the culture. Wexler's camera registers this small town of Sparta, Mississippi, in all its sweaty, gross yet believable contradictions, and you feel as though you've been dropped into this world like a fly on the wall. In the opening sequence, a police officer makes his nightly rounds, stopping at a grimy diner where he makes small talk with the lanky creep running the counter. (There's a fly caught inside the cake dish, and something about that image stays with you.) This whole exchanged has a kind of tilted, cracked feel to it that stays with you through the entire movie. The South really becomes a place of hypnotic, mysterious darkness. The cop also has a nightly habit of passing the house of a pretty young girl who walks around naked at night with the lights on. But again, we the audience are always this sort of non-superior fly, watching the events unfold without being asked to feel superior to these characters. We're trapped in that cake dish and watching life unfold in all its messy, contradictory, infuriating truthfulness.

In a later scene, Scott Wilson is pursued through Mississippi swamps and bramble by police dogs. Wilson manages to elude the pack of cops and hounds only to find himself caught by Rod Steiger, who's waiting for him on a bridge in his patrol car, slowly trailing Wilson until he runs out of energy and surrenders. The comic irony at the end of this scene speaks, in a way, for the whole movie. Such a lot of effort wasted. So many characters in In the Heat of the Night seem to be expending all they've got only to have their endeavors fall apart. 

In line with this idea of wasted effort is the murder plot itself: The murder victim is a rich entrepreneur from Chicago, and he's supposed to build a factory in Sparta that will create 1000 jobs for the community. When his wife (played by Lee Grant) learns that he's been murdered, she nearly falls apart, but catches herself and asks to be left alone so she can cry it out in solitude. (I kept waiting for some kind of actressy mourning scene, and the film almost goes there, but right then they cut, and it seems like the right amount of grief and restraint.) The prime suspect is a gentrified Southern aristocrat who riles the indignation of Virgil Tibbs, but then something happens that sort of pulls the grandiosity out of the mystery. And this is really quite brilliant, but I won't go into detail for fear of spoiling the film. Suffice to say, it puts In the Heat of the Night in that category of bleakly brilliant 1960s and 70s noirs. (The anti-noirs. I love the real noirs of the 40s, but there are a handful of anti-noirs that are quite good too.)

Indeed, we're constantly witnessing tense sequences in this movie that don't end up how we expect them to, and the actions of the characters in the film are hard to predict, yet never false. The film is entirely realistic in that regard. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and director Norman Jewison deserve recognition for this too. It's no small feat to try and be a crackling murder mystery and a conscientious movie about race, and to their credit, they manage to balance the two fairly successfully without eschewing credibility. The film holds up nicely as both morality tale and Southern noir, particularly because it doesn't try to ram the message down our throats.

That posturing, prestige picture mentality is partly what I was looking for (and hoping I wouldn't get, and I relieved I didn't get) as I re-watched In the Heat of the Night. We're so pommeled by those kinds of movies--particularly at the end of the year--that are inclined to preach to us some kind of high moral message. But this movie is fun to watch. It's not pre-occupied with being the Big Race Movie of 1967 (that dubious honor goes to Poitier's other film from that year, the overrated Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.) Yes there is a clear attempt in this film to show us the stupidity of racism, but that's the point: it shows us so much more than it tells. And thankfully the movie doesn't end with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger high-fiving before Virgil finally boards his train.

There is a deeper understanding between the two men, but the movie doesn't try and over-explain that. What makes In the Heat of the Night stand out among all the racially charged movies of the 1960s is that it makes room for the weird complexity of racism. (I don't mean to suggest that the impulse to be racist requires complexity of thought, but that racism is so embedded in culture and relationships between peoples that trying to identify it and transmute it is a complex thing.) Virgil Tibbs isn't out to change the minds of every person in the South who hates black people. (He was just trying to catch a frigging train.) But if the stubborn police chief can see the humanity in a black man--and respect him for his considerable talent, skill, and achievement as a fellow human being--then maybe there's a little hope. (I kept imagining Virgil's next phone call to his mom: "Listen. From now on you're coming to Philadelphia.") ½

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