Old Movies, New Eyes: In the Heat of the Night

They call me Mister Tibbs.

In light of the last couple weeks of turmoil, what better way to revive this flagging column of mine than by looking back at a film where a white cop and a black detective are forced to get along? Winning multiple awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Rod Steiger), and Adapted Screenplay, it became a defining film for Sidney Poitier and marked a shift in Hollywood’s portrayal of black characters. As a fan of crime drama and Rod Steiger, I had this film on my to-watch list for a while before I got around to seeing it. Knowing it was a 60s movie and that it was considered significant in the political landscape of the Civil Rights movement, I was worried that it might be heavy-handed or on-the-nose. Were all the white characters going to be idiots? Was it going to be a bait-and-switch affair that purports to be a crime flick but is really About Race in a super pompous, 60s way?

Thank goodness, no! I mean okay yes, it is about race, and yes, we’ll talk about That Scene where Poitier has a slap-off with a plantation owner. And yes, the mystery is ultimately a little flimsy and takes a back seat to the character drama. But really, it’s not so much About Race as it is About Male Bonding. In fact, an alternate title was considered—Machismo: The Movie.

The film is probably at its most heavy-handed in the beginning, when Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs is arrested for the crime of Sitting At a Train Station With Lots of Money In His Pocket In a Small Town Where a Murder Has Just Been Committed While Black. The deputy is very over-the-top and racist and dumb-looking, and Chief Gillespie (Steiger) isn’t much better at first. But then Tibbs makes a well-placed phone call, and things get interesting. Especially when the Philadelphia police chief on the other end suggests Tibbs offer an expert eye to help out Gillespie & Co. with the case. Tibbs is floored. “You can’t be serious, sir… No sir, I’m not prejudiced. [pause] Yes sir, I am a police officer, and they’re police officers, but…”

This is what both Gillespie and Tibbs begrudgingly come to admit: At the end of the day, a man has been murdered, and they are policemen. They catch bad guys. It’s their job. And they both know Tibbs brings a level of expertise Gillespie can’t touch. Much as Tibbs wants to shake the dust of the town off his wing-tips at first, something compels him to stay. Is it courtesy? Professional pride? Or maybe just the pure pleasure of solving a knotty murder mystery? Gillespie is banking on the latter, and he’s not wrong.

The partnership they ultimately forge is not just a study in racial contrast, it’s a study in class contrast. Tibbs has clean fingernails, he wears a tie, he speaks with a Northeastern clip. Gillespie’s eyes pop when he first hears what Tibbs makes in a week. He repeats the amount, each enunciated word dripping envy: “one hundred and sixty-two dollars and thirty-nine cents a week, well, boy!” Still, Tibbs needs Gillespie, because this is Gillespie’s backyard, and it ain’t Philadelphia. In a scene where Tibbs is backed into a corner like a spitting cat by four thugs, Gillespie strolls up unhurriedly, hands in his pockets, knowing he holds the power of life and death. He can seal Virgil’s fate with a word, one way or the other. He chooses life.

More than one red herring passes Virgil’s way before he finally catches the killer, none of them very likable. All of them slap him in the face, metaphorically or literally. Yet he gives them justice, as is their due, because their lives matter. The film’s most famous scene is his tense confrontation with Endicott, a suspect who owns a plantation and was the victim’s arch-enemy. Virgil comes to call with a sprig of osmander hidden in his handkerchief, plucked from the brake pedal of a car with bloodstains on its passenger seat. He smiles broadly and asks to be shown around the powerful man’s collection of flowers and shrubbery. “What do you call this material?” he asks, taking a bit of one plant between his fingers. It’s osmander. Tempers quickly flare as Endicott realizes he’s a suspect. Virgil receives a back-handed slap and returns the favor without a second thought as Gillespie looks on. “Gillespie, you saw it,” the man seethes. “I saw it.” “Well, what are you going to do about it?” “I don’t know,” replies Gillespie, and that’s the honest truth.

Now, a lesser film would have solidified the plantation owner as the villain and sewn it all up just like that. But the more Virgil mulls it over, the more he realizes that it’s too tidy. It doesn’t add up. Later, he admits that he became fixated on Endicott “for personal reasons.” His detective side should have known better, and indeed it is the side that ultimately wins out.

The only other black character he meets is a woman who offers back-room abortions. She asks him, “Why you want to help the police like that? They stealin’ your soul. They chew you up and spit you out.” Tibbs doesn’t even answer her question. He has no time. The game is afoot, and she holds the last puzzle piece. (Brief aside: Conservatives seeking more than matter-of-fact acknowledgment of her “services” will be disappointed. This is a film of its time in more ways than one.)

It’s been argued that Poitier should have received Best Actor for this film instead of Steiger. Yet Steiger has by far the more difficult task. The character of Tibbs is relatively static and straight-forward. The character of Gillespie is eccentric, volatile, unpredictable. Steiger fully inhabits the character’s diction and behavioral quirks: the way he punctuates a moment with a quiet “Oh yeah,” the way he champs his gum like cud. If there’s one scene that clinched the Oscar for him, it’s probably this one, amazingly improvised with Poitier when outdoor shooting was rained in. It’s the closest Gillespie comes to being vulnerable with someone, perhaps the most vulnerable he’s ever allowed himself to be. But friendship is not his natural state. It never will be.

Fortunately, the film doesn’t leave their friendship hanging on that bitter note and allows them to exchange a smile at the train station. Yet how true this scene rings to human nature.

In the end, what makes In the Heat of the Night work is its willingness to let the two leads simply be themselves. There’s no dialogue to drive the point home that they’re developing a respect for each other. Men don’t talk that way in real life, only in bad Hollywood scripts. There’s also no time wasted on a ponderous meditation about overcoming racial barriers to solve a problem. They just do overcome racial barriers to solve a problem.

In the Heat of the Night is not a perfect film, but it represents a kind of filmmaking that is sorely lacking in today’s movie landscape. It allows characters to be wrong without being villainous. It makes points without the aid of an exposition hammer. It lets the script breathe. And yes, it does offer the viewer something to think about when we think about race. But from where we stand now, it’s not a bad thought.

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