The Oscars Project: Week 10 — In the Heat of the Night

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to The Hurt Locker. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

In the Heat of the NightIn the Heat of the Night (Best Picture, and four others)

“You’re gonna stay here if I have to go inside and call your chief of police and have him remind you of what he told you to do. But I don’t think I have to do that, you see? No, because you’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You’ve got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame.” — Gillespie (Rod Steiger)

As much as I think In the Heat of the Night is a good film — it has strong turns from Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, an excellent soundtrack by Quincy Jones and a script that excels at catching small moments even when it struggles with the big picture — I get the feeling that it’s the Crash of 1960s Oscar winners. Like that 2004 film, it managed to win Best Picture without getting a nod for Best Director — a relatively rare feat as far as the Oscars go. Also like that film, it benefited from the controversy around a critically acclaimed front-runner — Bonnie and Clyde for Heat, Brokeback Mountain for Crash — which may have hurt a better movie’s chances for the win (although, I haven’t actually seen Bonnie and Clyde, Brokeback or Crash, so everything I’m saying here is based on general critical consensus, not my own tastes). And, both arguably benefited from their progressive but relatively uncontroversial depictions of racism.

Not that Heat doesn’t push a few buttons. The film’s infamous “slap” scene was enough to draw gasps from crowds at the time, and still manages to maintain most of its power. But the overall statement — that racism is out there, but it can be overcome if we just take the time to get to know each other — is exactly the sort of moral that any non-extremist could accept as self-congratulatory proof of their progressive perspective. A vote for Heat was a vote against racism, which certainly couldn’t have hurt the movie’s chances.

It’s a theory that’d certainly help explain how the film overcame the likes of Bonnie — the first major American film to be inspired by the French New Wave — and The Graduate, a film whose impact is being felt more acutely than ever in the works of Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and other proprietors of upper-middle-class suburban angst. Because, as much as Heat contains its share of classic moments, it doesn’t quite fit together into a classic film.

It starts strongly enough. A patrol cop comes across a body in the street, which turns out to be a wealthy industrialist set to revitalize the economy of Sparta, Mississippi. The police chief, played with gum-chewing bravado by Steiger, orders a quick check of bus shelters and train stations for potential suspects. They find Poitier waiting for a train, assume that any black man waiting around at that time of night with a wallet full of cash must be a killer, and bring him in.

At first, Poitier’s obedience and near-silence makes it seem like he’s just playing the role for which he’s best known — a black man of such superhuman dignity and moral fibre that it would be impossible for anyone except a blatant racist to dislike him. It doesn’t take long, though, to see that Virgil Tibbs isn’t exactly typical Poitier. His eyes burn with contempt for the lazy cops who assume they’ve solved the case as soon as they spot his skin colour. Every line of dialogue is laced with measured fury. Tibbs knows that it’s not his place to call the Spartans on their racism, but not out of saintly patience — it’s more that causing a scene could lead to anything from false charges to a straight-up lynching.

Once it’s revealed that Tibbs is a cop, and not just some wandering mugger, he ends up helping with the murder investigation. Thankfully, and in a move that seems impossible by current standards, Heat doesn’t devolve into a buddy comedy full of trite observations and culture clashes of the “black people drive like this” variety. Grudging respect is the name of the game, true, but it comes about in a far less contrived manner.

In fact, it’s hard to say exactly when Gillespie comes around on Tibbs. It’s clear by the movie’s end that the cop who wasn’t afraid to throw around a few N-bombs in the first half is now relatively progressive, at least compared to his townsfolk. But there isn’t one single moment where Tibbs earns his affection. Naturally, Tibbs is exceedingly competent from the very first — he at least partly conforms to Poitier’s superman mold — but he’s not exactly likable, and he doesn’t always play by the proper rules. Watching Gillespie’s perspective warp and reshape itself is one of the most interesting parts of the movie, and is probably best represented by that “slap” scene. Tibbs has just gone to investigate a plantation owner, the manifestation of everything awful about the old-guard of the American south, and the antithesis of the more left-leaning murdered industrialist. Once the owner realizes he’s being accused of murder — by a black man, no less — he slaps Tibbs across the face. Tibbs slaps back.

The power of the scene isn’t so much in Poitier’s backhand, although that plays its part. It’s more in the reactions of everyone in the room, and the way the slap disrupts the power dynamic. The plantation owner’s attack was supposed to put Tibbs back in his place and eliminate whatever delusions of authority he was indulging in, but Tibbs’s instinctive reaction sets everything out of whack. Gillespie is forced to start rethinking his allegiances, the owner is reduced to cheap threats, and his butler can only quietly shake his head, silently expressing the disgust towards his employer that has likely been building over the course of a number of decades.

That scene, along with the film’s most famous line, “They call me Mister Tibbs” (a response to Gillespie’s mocking question, “Virgil, that’s a funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia — what do they call you up there?”), are the film at its best, capturing complex power dynamics and cultural relationships without addressing them directly. Unfortunately, the script isn’t so great when it comes to the actual plotting. A few red herrings pop up along the way, but there’s never much momentum to the actual murder investigation. Anyone who’s familiar with Roger Ebert’s law of economy of characters (a movie can’t afford to introduce characters for no reason, so the character who seems least related to the plot is probably the killer) will be able to put together the who, if not the why, early in the proceedings, and the subplot involving local racists trying to chase Tibbs out of town (or up a tree, whichever is easier) never really comes together. Director Norman Jewison maintains a consistently oppressive mood, playing up the Mississippi heat and steadfastly refusing to glamourize any of the characters (except Tibbs, of course), but the script ensures that Heat still feels like a bit of a hodgepodge. It almost works to the movie’s advantage — given that it’s trying to show the complexities of America’s evolving cultural dynamic, it’s only fitting that it’s all a bit of a mess, and there’s no denying that the scene where a gang of racists comes after Poitier with chains and poles is one of the movie’s most intense, but it keeps Heat from being truly great.

At best, Heat comes across as an above-average detective movie with a timely racial theme. But it’s still hard to believe that it overtook both The Graduate and Bonnie, especially with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner splitting the Sidney-Poitier-teaches-white-people-about-racism vote in the Best Picture category. An anti-Bonnie campaign organized by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther definitely affected the outcome of the Oscar race  — which you can and should read about in Mike Harris’s excellent Pictures at a Revolution — with the notoriously grumpy critic writing not one but three assaults on Warren Beatty’s prohibition-era murder spree; the implication was that a vote for Bonnie would just be proof of America’s moral decline. In that sense, Heat’s win can be seen as an oddly conservative win, considering the film’s subject matter — an anti-racist message is easier to take than Bonnie’s nihilistic indulgence and The Graduate’s adolescent misanthropy (and fifth nominee Dr. Doolittle never really had a chance, thank God). It feels more like a compromise than a genuine entry in the 20th century canon.

Coming up:
1968: Oliver!
1969: Midnight Cowboy
1970: Patton

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