Thursday, October 4, 2012

Worth Watching: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Title: In the Heat of the Night
Director: Norman Jewison
Language: English
Rating: PG/PG-13

An influential businessman in a small Southern town has been murdered, and the first suspect brought in for interrogation is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). Why Tibbs? He's a black man and was found sitting alone at the train depot with a wad of cash in his pocket; in the eyes of Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) and his ragtag crew of officers, he might as well be sentenced on the spot. When it turns out that Tibbs - Mr. Tibbs - is the best homicide detective in Philadelphia, makes more money a week than Gillespie does in a month, and was only passing through the area after visiting his mother, he's recruited to help solve the case. Reluctantly, after some pressure from his own police chief, he agrees.

Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger as Sheriff Gillespie

It's not a happy situation for Tibbs, working in a hostile town where he could easily get arrested, beaten or shot. Tibbs can't just be good at what he does. To receive basic human consideration, he has to be the best; he has to meet the highest standards of professionalism if he even wants to be tolerated. I don't think we ever see Tibbs eat anything, wear anything other than a suit, or sleep. He has to be more than human.

Poiter delivers his lines a little too stiffly here, compared to his performances in a couple of older films. Maybe the extra stiffness reflects the strain of having to play - not for the first time - two roles in a movie: the role of his character (who's trying to stay alive, solve a crime, and show racist people that he's a person worthy of respect) and the role of Poitier the Emissary, put on the big screen to comfortably show white audiences in the late 1950s through the 1960s that black people can be good and kind and smart too.

Before Poitier, black actors didn't get prominent parts on-screen, with the exception of some musicals. From what I've seen they were mostly portrayed as slow, child-like, and/or servile. Poitier broke down some of those stereotypes by playing intelligent characters, people with nobility and courage and strong will. But to endear himself to white audiences, he wasn't allowed to be sexual, and he needed to be shown as helpful to white people. In the movies I've watched so far, his characters weren't boring or perfect, and he portrayed people who had backbone and wouldn't accept racist insults. He broke ground in cinematic scenes where he wrestled down racists (in the The Defiant Ones), called them 'boy' (in Lilies of the Field), and in this movie, slapped them. Those scenes still have power today, but they were much more shocking when the movies first came out. Still, Poitier was limited in his choice of roles, because he had to present a certain image to movie-goers.

In any case, I think in this movie the strengths of his performance lie not so much in the delivery of his lines but in his intense facial expressions, and his body language suggesting defensiveness and leashed strength; he has a compelling screen presence. His demeanor is a sharp contrast to Steiger's Sheriff Gillespie, a laconic bulldog of a man who slouches around, chews gum, puts his feet up on his desk, and hides a sharp mind behind an easygoing manner. Gillespie is racist, not so much with true conviction as with a need to feel superior to others in some way, given his nonexistent personal life and low-paying, high-pressure job in a backwater town. Tibbs's city manners, cleverness and sophisticated crime-solving techniques reluctantly impress him even as he's eaten up with jealousy and outrage.

Rod Steiger as Sheriff Gillespie

Detective Tibbs and Sheriff Gillespie don't become friends, but Gillespie does come to see Tibbs as a man worth respecting and defending. In one great scene that captures their relationship and its uneasiness, Gillespie hosts Tibbs in his home where they talk over drinks. Letting Tibbs into his house is an unspoken sign of respect from Gillespie, who doesn't like having guests over. In the course of their conversation, they discover some things they have in common (two law enforcement officers, leading a lonely life with lots of hard, tiring work), and Tibbs starts to look a little relaxed for a change. But then the feeling of fellowship startles Gillespie - it's suddenly too much, sharing confidences with a man who should be inferior to him but isn't - and he retreats back into his racist mindset and shuts Tibbs out again, leaving Tibbs disillusioned and regretful. As long as he can see Tibbs as an officer, Gillespie is able to work with him, but he keeps retreating from the idea of Tibbs as a man.

That scene felt a lot more real to me than the ending, which hit a wrong note. Suffice it to say, Tibbs solves the murder, and he's about to leave this little town where maybe he's changed some people's perceptions. Gillespie arrives to see him off at the train station. At this point the filmmakers (and Poitier) make it seem like Tibbs really needs the recognition from the sheriff. He doesn't just want the victory of getting acknowledgement from a man who thought he was dirt at the start of the film, or the satisfaction of changing some people's minds; he seems to actually need Gillespie's approval. (Not like in Lilies of the Field, where the recognition he wants from Mother Maria feels more like the respect a person demands from a worthy contender.) Here it seems that Tibbs wants a pat on the head.

Tibbs and Gillespie along with Endicott's servant in the famous slap scene

I haven't said much about the murder, because while there are some suspenseful moments and colorful (and yucky) minor characters the movie is worth watching mostly because of Poitier and Steiger and their dynamic.

I also love the feel of the movie in some of the scenes. There's the blur of lights in the beginning with Ray Charles singing In the Heat of the Night. Also the unexpected moments of humor or irony; for instance, the first character in the film who respectfully addresses Tibbs as "Mr. Tibbs" is one of the most racist characters, Endicott (Larry Gates), who lives like a plantation owner of yore. He regards his workers with paternalistic condescension and pines for the good old days where he could get away with shooting the uppity ones. These days he can't even deliver a slap without getting one back.

What I wanted more of was Tibbs's thoughts about the situation he's in. Not his need for acknowledgement or his need to stay alive and stay one step ahead of those trying to kill him, but his thoughts on being in alien territory. Usually he's in Philly, well-respected and in his element; in the South he's rejected and threatened by white society and doesn't fit in among the other black people who are still kept in "their place." His mother lives in these parts, and he understands some of the culture - seen especially in his conversation with Mama Caleba (Beah Richards), a character who plays a key role in the murder mystery. But what does Tibbs think? He's an emissary from another world (in this case, a big city in the northern U.S.), just as Poitier himself bridged two worlds in mainstream cinema, his films becoming part of an important transformation in American culture.

*All images link back to their source (Flixster Community).

2 comments:

naida said...

I've seen Sidney Poiter in one film and I enjoyed his acting style. Interesting, I never gave thought to his having to act a certain way in order to be liked by the white audience.

I can imagine Detective Tibbs and Sheriff Gillespie characters are interesting to watch as they respect each other, but only just enough. You so often see characters like Gillespie open up a bit, only to go back into their old mindset and shut the other person out.
Great post.

HKatz said...

Thanks, Naida, and your observation is true: You so often see characters like Gillespie open up a bit, only to go back into their old mindset and shut the other person out. It does become too much for them...