In the Heat of the Night

Director: Norman Jewison. Cast: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Anthony James, Scott Wilson, Larry Gates, James Patterson, Quentin Dean, Peter Whitney, Beah Richards, William Schallert, Matt Clark, Kermit Murdock, Khalil Bezaleel. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by John Ball).

Age hasn't done much for Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night, a 1967 Oscar winner for Best Picture and, in recognition of Rod Steiger's turn as police chief Bill Gillespie, Best Actor. In fact, In the Heat of the Night accumulated a whole slew of awards following its initial release, the most revealing of which is probably the "United Nations Award" bestowed upon the film by the BAFTA, in recognition of its noble address of American racism.

I am not sure, though, that In the Heat of the Night actually addresses American racism. Surely, the bigotry of most of the white citizens of Sparta, Mississippi, figures prominently as a plot element, as stranded Philadelphia homicide cop Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is falsely arrested, then sneered at, then purposefully falsely arrested, then slapped, then assaulted by chain- and pipe-bearing hooligans, then refused restaurant service, then assaulted again, etc., etc., all because he is a black visitor to the Deep South. In other words, Tibbs' race is a crucial narrative component of Stirling Silliphant's screenplay; the film would be altered beyond recognition if he were white. Moreover, the anti-racist moral indignation of Lee Grant's character, the equal-opportunity hiring initiatives of murder victim Philip Colbert, and the gradual liberalizing of Chief Gillespie's own attitudes are all essential indicators of the political sympathies of the film, or at least of the filmmakers. One can hardly watch In the Heat of the Night and harbor any doubt that its creators deplore the racism of the American South and that they wish to make a movie that exposes that racism.

A different question, though, and a more important one is whether they have actually made that movie, whether In the Heat of the Night has anything in particular to say about American racism except that it exists, even though it shouldn't. Much of what passed, perhaps, for brutal honesty and truth-telling candor in 1967 now seems like narrative contrivance and schematic characterization. For starters, all of the white characters in In the Heat of the Night, save perhaps for Lee Grant's aggrieved wife-cum-ethical voicebox, fall somewhere on the beloved Hollywood spectrum of Southern grotesquerie. Steiger, of course, made a career of playing superficially loathsome types who either were worth knowing on a deeper level (like his haunted title character from The Pawnbroker) or were actually just as repulsive as they looked (in genres stretching from Oklahoma! to Doctor Zhivago). This time out, his Gillespie, a mannered and somewhat bellicose aggregation of Actors Studio tics, eventually undergoes a moral conversion on the issue of racial bigotry, but the transformation is more a necessary conceit of the screenplay than a process organically substantiated in the details of performance or presentation. So much of Steiger's acting, and this goes as well for Grant, relies on heavily theatricalized gestures—chewing gum at different tempos, hands in front of lips, clutching the air for dramatic emphasis—that imply "subtlety" to viewers who don't appreciate, or else can't discern, real subtlety. By showing us all his tricks, an actor like Steiger makes us feel like we are uncovering clues of his character, when in fact it's all there on the surface, in an overall artistic context so inclined toward naturalist realism that his abstract stylistics, if that's what they are (instead of just a belabored, crude attempt at naturalist realism), are an awkward mismatch.

Largely because they are played by character actors, the secondary figures in Jewison's movie—raffish detective Sam Wood (Warren Oates), "teenaged" temptress Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean, hardly a 16-year-old), jailed suspect Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson), diner clerk Ralph (Anthony James), hapless desk-cop Courtney (Peter Whitney)—are harder to separate from their roles, but the greasy-haired dishevelment, creaturely chortling, and overstated agitation of their performances all feel like a caricature of racist villainy from an outsider perspective. (Director Jewison, who later made Fiddler on the Roof, Moonstruck, and The Hurricane, is a Canadian.) My point is hardly to decry the short-changing of white personalities; rather, I propose that making the Spartans so twitchily, unmistakably malformed as human personalities makes their racism completely unthreatening. We are hardly confronting a morally neutral cast of characters, much less a realistic human community, and thus discovering that these trollish folk have unevolved racial attitudes is less a trenchant exposé than a logical extension of their histrionic cretinousness. No viewer of In the Heat of the Night, Northern or Southern, is likely to see itself on the screen. Nor is this film, which was actually shot in Sparta, Illinois, likely to suggest that racism haunts much more of the country than this neurotic version of Dixie, the most easily vilifiable territory in the Union. The racism of Cara Williams' character in Poitier's The Defiant Ones—admittedly, a movie with its own lapses into fable—was much more terrifying and provocative for inhabiting a surface personality of such tranquility, fresh-facedness, and casual romanticism.

Meanwhile, the whole of In the Heat of the Night is propelled by a murder mystery that seems, from the outside, preposterously convoluted and, within the narrative, quite bizarrely handled. Steiger's police force behaves in such a manner that it's almost as if they are trying not to catch the criminal, though they arrest plenty of suspects. For a while, the film dangles Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), a wealthy aristocrat with plenty of time for hobbies, as a possible explanation for the law's determined myopia: do Gillespie and his cohort haul in petty vagrants and helpless underlings because they're scared to admit that Sparta's ruling élite is wholly corrupt, and that the racism of that élite—an attitude largely shared by the civil service—really is part and parcel of ethical corruption? These implications are largely rendered moot, however, when Silliphant exposes Endicott as an object not of Steiger's disgusted fascination but of Poitier's: after an incendiary moment when Endicott and Tibbs exchange blows in the rich man's own home, he drops almost entirely from the narrative radar. Class and social hierarchy within white society are ultimately too complicated for this film to handle, determined as it is to render America's entire social predicament in terms of black and white.

By the time the killer's identity is revealed, the film has either made a compelling point about America's damaging obsession with questions of race or, much more likely, has merely enacted another instance of it. In other words, the murderer's highly melodramatic motive has little to do with race, but the revelation nonetheless arrives in a sequence where Haskell Wexler's low-angle, handheld camera is busy sensationalizing the chainlinks, rifles, and blunt objects with which slavering white townspeople are about to annihilate the Poitier character. Once the crime is cleared up, Poitier heads for a train back to Philadelphia, and Quincy Jones' frequently intrusive score sees him off at the station. Poitier's performance throughout is fine, quiet, and layered, the best in the film, but what are we to make of this role or its place in the larger vehicle of the film? Virgil Tibbs came, he saw, and he conquered, but are we to imagine as that train speeds out of Mississippi that the South, or even tiny Sparta, was never again the same after his visit? Is the resolution of the murder mystery truly metonymical of some more general moral improvement among Sparta's citizens, or has In the Heat of the Night rather glibly dressed its inconsequential and safely proscribed detective yarn in illusory trappings of Social Significance?

American liberals, though obviously preferable to its racist hate-mongers, are forever so ensconced in a deluded rhetoric of color-blindness that when a picture even notices the blackness of some of its characters, many audiences will sense that political work has been accomplished. In the Heat of the Night, though, is much better at noticing that Virgil Tibbs is African-American and at imagining the hatred he therefore encounters as an American citizen than it is of articulating a credible response to Tibbs' predicament. Besides, his whole story is absorbed into a lame mystery that, considered on its own merits, amounts to a lot of zoom photography and narrative McGuffins. Three years before Jewison's movie walked home with five Oscars, James Baldwin wrote a play called Blues for Mister Charlie whose overt stylization of character and situation nonetheless implicated race, class, gender, politics, and regional identification in a complex, bottomless pit of American mistrust, culminating in a rigged jury trial and an articulation of rage against the social status quo. Critics slashed the play, calling it feverish, implausible, irresponsible—but a film in which Sidney Poitier arrives in the South and leaves again, a smile on his face for a job well-done, is rewarded as a humane advance. In the Heat of the Night puts its indifferent storytelling abilities in the service of an ultimately reassuring yarn. Frankly, the yarn should have been a lot more compelling, possibly by deploying its awareness of race into something more substantial than a genre tale on fantastic terrain. C

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Norman Jewison
Best Actor: Rod Steiger
Best Adapted Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant
Best Film Editing: Hal Ashby
Best Sound
Best Sound Effects: James Richard

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Norman Jewison
Best Actor (Drama): Sidney Poitier
Best Actor (Drama): Rod Steiger
Best Supporting Actress: Quentin Dean
Best Supporting Actress: Lee Grant
Best Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Picture; Best Actor (Steiger)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actor (Steiger); Best Cinematography (Haskell Wexler)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Foreign Actor (Steiger); UN Award

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