This post is a revision of my intro for last night's newcritics open thread on In The Heat of the Night which has become this morning's newcritics open thread on In The Heat of the Night. Comments are still coming in. Feel free to join in. Discussion developed an interesting side-thread on the career of the great character actor, Warren Oates, who plays sad sack police officer Sam Wood in In The Heat Of The Night, particularly his work in Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch.
Word of warning. Up next at Wednesday Night at the Movies, June 25, my least favorite movie from my childhood, and I didn't even see it, I refused, absolutely refused to let my parents take me: Doctor Dolittle---the one starring Rex Harrison not Eddie Murphy.
Probably nobody working on The Graduate thought they were making a movie that would speak for a generation. They thought they were filming a commercial comedy based on a satirical novel that had been published early enough in the decade to be really a product of the 1950s and not the 1960s, certainly not The Sixties as they’ve come to be defined in the popular imagination. The targets of the satire were timeless, too. Hypocrisy, conformity, materialism. Whatever “revolutionary” edginess they might have intended was in the movie’s attitudes towards sex—in the non-judgmental, almost objective acceptance of Mrs Robinson’s aggressive sexual desire, in the frankness with which her affair with Ben is portrayed, in the flashes of nudity. If the movie has a message, it’s not rebellion but the importance of moral integrity.
It’s almost old-fashioned that way.
But In The Heat Of The Night is very much a statement in response to its time. It is a product of the Civil Rights Movement and it delivers some very definite, and defiant, messages about race and prejudice and the brotherhood of man. It is not a protest film, though.
It’s a triumphalist film.
The filmmakers aren’t joining hands to sing We Shall Overcome. Their song is We Have Already Overcome...Get Used To It.
In The Heat of the Night is about how the Old Segregationist South was being swept away to make way for a New South very much like the New North and the New West. The New South would be a place where pragmatism replaced prejudice, where money made the rules, and where competence and intelligence made the money.
The new elite wouldn’t be white or black. It would just be people who were very good at their jobs.
This was a very optimistic view, considering that within a year of the film’s completion the country would see the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Presidential campaign of George Wallace, and the first applications of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which would eventually bring about thirty years of Republican dominance in national politics based on the GOP’s incorporation of the old Dixiecratic South within its base.
It was an optimistic view but it was a realistic one and in large areas of the South it has turned out to have been what has happened.
Before the movie even gets underway the power in the town of Sparta has shifted, out of the hands of the old Southern aristocracy and segregationists who had run the place for generations and into the hands of the murder victim, the Northern industrialist who came to town to open a new factory there. Even dead he still wields power, through his widow and through his money which she now controls.
When we first meet Philadelphia Detective Virgil Tibbs—in one of the best introductory shots in movie history, ranking up there with Humphrey Bogart’s first appearance in Casablanca—he is an outsider and seemingly in a very vulnerable situation. All the power in the scene would seem to belong to the police officer arresting him and we should expect things to get worse for him when he’s brought into the station.
But no character played by Sidney Poitier can ever be without authority and it doesn’t take long before by the sheer force of his glare he has most of the white characters backing away from him, if not backing down. Nobody knows how to deal with him, because Tibbs represents something they have no experience with—a black man with political clout. The North has invaded, and it doesn’t take long for the North in the person of Virgil Tibbs to establish its authority based on competence.
Shortly after that, Tibbs is invested with even more authority. The murdered industrialist’s widow recognizes him immediately as the one man in town who knows how to get the job she wants done done and she puts him in charge of solving her husband’s murder.
Once he becomes the agent of the new powers that be, Tibbs is the ultimate Insider.
He still has to deal with racism, even to the point of having to fight off a gang of good old boys who intend to teach him who's still boss around these parts, but his biggest challenges to solving the crime come from his own anger and pride. The slap he delivers to the plantation owner is a shocking, thrilling, and satisfying moment, but it's also unsettling and a bit distancing, because it comes about only because Tibbs has made a big mistake. He's there to receive and return the slaps across the face because he wants the bigot to be guilty and he wants racism to have been the motive. It's one of several mistakes he makes in the course of his investigation.
But these mistakes don't cost him anything except time, for the same reason similar mistakes don't cost the heroes of more traditional police procedurals. Tibbs is the top cop here. He is the Man.
That other characters, particularly Chief Gillespie, are having trouble accepting this fact and dealing with is not his problem.
The outsiders are now the representatives of the old South, the plantation owner up on the hill, whose cheek receives the famous slap; those good old boys who chase Tibbs into the abandoned warehouse; the stupid counterman at the diner who refuses to serve him; and, ironically, Bill Gillespie.
And Gillespie, it turns out, can’t afford any more added outsiderness.
It’s a beautiful job of expositionary economy: we’re never told it explicitly but Gillespie is not just new to the job of Chief, he’s new in town. He’s been brought in from outside to reshape the department, make it more professional, and so far he’s not had much success. His cops are in passive revolt against his authority. Nothing he wants done, gets done the first or even the second time he gives an order. His broken air conditioner, which he finally sets about fixing himself, is the symbol of his weakness.
Gillespie is a racist and he doesn’t want to believe that a black man can be a better cop than he is. But his real problem with Tibbs is more practical and would be a problem even if it Tibbs was white—just by being there, Tibbs, the big city detective, is an argument against Gillespie’s competence. Gillespie’s already afraid for his job when we first meet him at the crime scene, and he doesn’t even know about Tibbs yet. He’s nervous and full of self-doubt to begin with and he doesn't know if he can trust anyone to do their jobs right so that he can do his. If Tibbs solves the case then what does the town need Gillespie for? It would be worse for him, if a black man proves to be better at his job than he is, worse for his position among other racist whites, worse for his pride, but the effect will be the same—he will lose so much face as chief that he’ll never gain control of the department. It won’t be long before he’s out of the job.
On one level In The Heat of the Night is about how a bigoted white man learns to accept a black man as his equal, even as his superior. But on another level, the level that I think resonates most today, it’s about how a proud man learns how to accept his own limitations and who learns how to make-do given those limitations.
This particular murder mystery is an interesting side-trip in the life story of Virgil Tibbs. But it is the adventure of Bill Gillespie’s life. This is make or break for him. If he fails in Sparta he has nothing left ahead for him. He’s through, as through as the Old South.
Sidney Poitier took a big risk with his portrayal of Virgil Tibbs. Tibbs is as resistant to liking anyone in Sparta as they are to liking him. He pushes away sympathy and ignores or rejects attempts by the other characters to befriend him. It's because he suspects they will only be his friend on their terms, which is to say on racist terms, terms that make him the inferior and the supplicant. But his justifiable prickliness makes Tibbs seem rude at times and overly proud and that makes him difficult for the audience to like the way audiences are used to liking movie heroes, and the way they were used to liking Poitier.
But as great as Poitier is as Tibbs, this is Rod Steiger’s film and that's why he deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
So that might be the best place to start our discussion, with Steiger’s performance.
What do you think? In his first scene, does he overdo it with gum-chewing?
HenryFTP disagrees with its being Steiger's movie:
As great as the ensemble performances are in the film, and as good as Rod Steiger is, it really all hinges on Poitier. The character [in the novel] is no Philip Marlowe -- Poitier brings to life what [the writer] only hints at, and that's the Jackie Robinson dimension to Virgil Tibbs. All that competitive drive, intelligence and ambition is straitjacketed by societal strictures, and Poitier has to battle the bigots and himself all the way through the film. It works both as a terrific piece of acting and as a real movie star turn -- he grabs you from the opening frames.