Thursday, April 28, 2011

In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

Involving and still relevant, this Civil Rights-era murder mystery explores the relationship between a brutish, racist Mississippi cop and the stalwart black FBI agent assigned to assist him. The victim was a local industrialist, whose business interests conflicted with several of the town's citizens, both rich and poor, so the unlikely duo has to comb the entire town for clues, suspects, and evidence. The actual murder is almost circumstantial; the movie is mostly an examination of the town's treatment of the intelligent, unwavering, strong, and moral black Fed, Virgil Tibbs. From his first encounter with Rod Steiger's Sheriff Gillespie, it is clear that the townspeople immediately mark him as an other, and do not look at him, nor expect to treat him, as an equal, regardless of his demeanor and good intentions. As the two interview townsfolk and examine the crime scene(s), they encounter a great deal of resistance and animosity solely based on the fact that Tibbs is an authoritative black man. The relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie strengthens based on mutual professional respect, and various townspeople, including the victim's wife, begin to appreciate what Tibbs brings to the table.

As the unflappable Mr. Tibbs (with that great line that you'll find if you google his name), Sidney Poitier narrowly avoids coming off as a squeaky clean, soulless "Uncle Tom" by infusing his character with an almost aggressive disposition, a veiled sense of kindness, and subtle facial gestures that imply that he is, in fact, understanding of the backwards nature of these Mississippi folk, just completely frustrated with it. However, as the country bumpkin sheriff, Steiger was the one to pull down an Academy Award for this film, and the evidence is on full display. He refuses to fall into any cliched notion of what the character should be, and it is an absolute delight to see Gillespie's racist tendencies repeatedly subside and surface to Tibbs' frustration. He never makes the character a monster, yet never falls into the trap of making him some confused, lost puppy of a man, begging for redemption and understanding. Even by the end, his treatment of Mr. Tibbs does not extend beyond a deep respect for his intelligence and tact, but it is clear that his opinion of black people in general has softened. While he is not going to run out and march with MLK, he is not so ignorant that he does not lose his ability to dismiss a whole race of people who can produce people as helpful, to the town and to himself, as Mr. Tibbs. His arc is a very natural, un-preachy way of getting across the nuances of racial tensions and the reasons that mankind should focus on expelling them. Other performers that show up as townsfolk include Warren Oates, Lee Grant, and Scott Wilson, who all turn in terrific, invisible work (save for Grant's overdone "bereaved widow" scene), and the music is a wonderful southern-fried concoction by Quincy Jones.

Highly Recommended for fans of 1960's social dramas, particularly examinations of the civil rights conflict, as well as fans of Poitier or Rod Steiger. Aside from Steiger, this film won oscars for Best Editing (by future master director, Hal Ashby), Best Screenplay, and Best Picture, over The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde; they were all well-deserved.

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