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.

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Old Movies, New Eyes: The Lost Weekend

One’s too many, and a hundred’s not enough.

The Lost Weekend, one's too many still 1
Ray Milland as Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend

When The Lost Weekend first came out in 1945, nobody had predicted that it would be a hit. It was based on a novel that had sold well, but the book market was one thing. The film market was another. And Charles Jackson’s semi-autobiographical tale of an alcoholic loser who deliberately rejects love, hope and sobriety to go on a three-day bender was not exactly an easy sell.

Yet somehow, against all odds, the film swept the Oscars and the box office alike. Perhaps it was because in The Lost Weekend, people finally saw something that reflected the painful truth of alcoholism, as opposed to the Hollywood fictions that had glamorized it or laughed it off. Perhaps when they looked in the lost eyes of Don Birnam, they saw their own prodigal brothers, lovers and sons.

But I would be short-changing this film if I described it as merely a message movie about alcoholism. Don Birnam’s story is not merely the story of an alcoholic. It is the story of a sinner and the grace that pursues him even when he pushes it away. It is the story of a soul with life and death set before him, as they are set before every soul. And it stands as a haunting reminder that, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “There are only two kinds of people, in the end: those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God says, in the end, Thy will be done.”

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Old Movies, New Eyes: The Best Years of Our Lives

You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I’ve had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it’s really true. Am I really home?

Welcome to the opening of a new series! Better yet, a new series that I hope to make at least semi-regular (we’ll shoot for monthly and see how it goes). This one has been a long time coming. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved old movies. Now, I finally have the space and time to share this passion with you, my readers. For each installment, I will hand-pick a film no fewer than 40 years old that has stood the test of time, conveying a thought-provoking story in an honest and meaningful way. The selections will by and large be serious works, some better-known than others, some grappling with very weighty subjects indeed, all providing excellent food for thought to Christians who want to engage with the arts. As I revisit them from a young movie critic’s perspective, my simple goal is, in the words of author Joseph Conrad, “to make you see.” May you enjoy reading as much as I will enjoy the writing process.

It seemed fitting to begin with a classic that celebrates a round-numbered anniversary this year: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Director. Weaving together the stories of three returning World War II veterans and the women who help them heal, it remains one of the best movies about marriage and the meaning of love that I’ve ever seen. Consequently, it will double as an addition to my series Marriage in the Movies.

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