In the Heat of the Night: film (1967) and novel (1965)

In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, and picked up another four: Best Actor (Rod Steiger as police chief Gillespie), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. It lost Best Director to The Graduate, and also lost Best Sound Effects to The Dirty Dozen.

The other Best Picture nominees were Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which of course also starred Sydney Poitier). The only one I have seen (I think) is The Graduate. In IMDB ratings of all 1967 films, In the Heat of the Night ranks 7th on one system and 14th on the other. Six films beat it in both systems: The Jungle Book, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, The Dirty Dozen, Bonnie and Clyde and You Only Live Twice. Apart from The Graduate, I have also seen The Jungle Book and You Only Live Twice. From 1967, I have also seen the first Casino Royale, Half a Sixpence, Who’s Minding the Mint and the Joseph Strick Ulysses. I am a bit mystified by IMDB’s love for The Jungle Book, which I remember as average Disney with implicit racism which surely would not pass muster today. On the other hand, I have good if vague memories of The Graduate and You Only Live Twice, and the first Casino Royale is at least fun. Here’s a trailer for In The Heat of the Night.

This is the first murder mystery to win the Oscar for Best Picture. (Unless you count Hamlet.) The twist is that the murder takes place in a bigoted Southern town, and a black detective from Philadephia who happens to be passing is brought in to solve the crime. I have to say that I did not especially warm to it. I watched it first on Eurostar after three tiring days in London, and then tried it again flying home after a tiring weekend in Glasgow, so my energy was not at its highest, but I must record that it failed to really grab me, and I’m putting it a touch below the halfway mark of my rankings, ahead of On the Waterfront (which also features Rod Steiger) but behind Grand Hotel.

We have one returnee from a previous Oscar-winning film – Rod Steiger, who was nominated as Best Supporting Actor in On The Waterfront, where he pays Marlon Brando’s older brother (despite being younger), and won the Best Actor award this year for his performance as Gillespie, the police chief.

I normally run through the aspects of these films in order, from the things I liked least to the things I liked most. In this case, the basic problem is that a successful detective story requires you to have distinct characters who are interesting enough that you care who is the actual murderer. I did not reach that point here, in either of my two viewings. This is a film about white men with harsh accents yelling at each other, and occasionally being thrown into jail, or taking a break from yelling at each other to yell at the black guy. The plot is fairly simple, but I actually found it difficult to follow. Though I was impressed by the cutting-edge tech used to record the murderer’s evental confession.

There are odd bits of cinematography that jolted me out of willing suspension of disbelief. Here’s one – a murder suspect is attempting to flee across state lines from Mississippi to Arkansas. What’s wrong with this picture? The sun is on the right, and Arkansas is west of Mississippi, so that means the sun is firmly in the north. (Not to mention the fact that the nearest bridges to the real Sparta, Mississippi, are two and a half hours’ drive away, so the police chief is well outside his jurisdiction.)

It’s a film that doesn’t have a lot of space for women either; the three female characters are the Grieving Widow (Lee Grant), the Town Slut (Quentin Dean) and, a little more interesting, the Town Abortionist (Beah Richards), but none of them gets an awful lot to do; the Grieving Widow does at least insist that the black guy should be kept on the case. Of course, that’s still three more speaking female characters than in Lawrence of Arabia (the film, that is; the original book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, has several well-characterised female camels).

On the other hand, you do have to admit that this is the first Oscar-winning film since Gone With the Wind to tackle race, and the first at all to be on the right side of the issue. This is largely (though not entirely – see above re Beah Richards, and there are others as well) carried by the superb performance of Sydney Poitier, as Virgil Tibbs, the Californian detective who is dragged unwillingly into a tacky murder committed by tacky people in a tacky town, and builds an uneasy and unsatisfactory relationship with the police chief.

He has the single best line of the film:

Gillespie: “Virgil”? That’s a funny name for a nigger boy to come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?
Tibbs: They call me MISTER TIBBS!

And he gets another iconic scene (watch to the end), where incidentally the butler is played by Jester Hairston, writer of the Christmas carol “Mary’s Boy Child”:

Even so, I confess I am not totally satisfied with the film’s take on race. Steiger’s Oscar for Best Actor kind of sums it up; the story ends up being about the white guy on a journey to become comfortable with his own racism, rather than about the black guy who has to deal with these bigots day in and day out. I suspect I might find Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, made the same year with the same lead actor, more satisfactory.

I can’t finish without saluting Ray Charles’ title song.

And so we reach another decade, with my rankings of the last ten films (in red below) among the forty Oscar winners so far as follows – not a bad decade, with half of the most recent ten in my top third overall, and seven of them in my top half. But there were some disappointments, and In the Heat of the Night was one of them.

40) The Great Ziegfeld (Oscar for 1936)
39) Cimarron (1930/31)
38) Cavalcade (1932/33)
37) Wings (1927/28)
36) Broadway Melody (1928/29)
35) All The King’s Men (1949)
34) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
33) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
32) Tom Jones (1963)
31) Gone With the Wind (1939)
30) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
29) Going My Way (1944)
28) My Fair Lady (1964)
27) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
26) Mrs Miniver (1942)
25) On The Waterfront (1954)
24) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
23) Grand Hotel (1931/32)
22) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
21) Marty (1955)
20) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
19) Gigi (1958)
18) It Happened One Night (1934)
17) You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
16) The Lost Weekend (1945)
15) Hamlet (1948)
14) From Here To Eternity (1953)
13) Around The World In Eighty Days (1956)
12) Ben-Hur (1959)
11) The Apartment (1960)
10) All About Eve (1950)
9) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
8) West Side Story (1961)
7) A Man for all Seasons (1966)
6) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
5) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
4) Rebecca (1940)
3) An American in Paris (1951)
2) The Sound of Music (1965)
1) Casablanca (1943)

As I usually try and do, I got and read the book that the film was based on, In the Heat of the Night by John Ball. Here’s the second paragraph of the third chapter:

Until Gillespie arrived in town, Sam Wood had been rated a big man, but Gillespie’s towering size automatically demoted Sam Wood to near normal stature. The new chief was only three years his senior—too young, Sam thought, for his job, even in a city as small as Wells. Furthermore Gillespie came from Texas, a state for which Sam felt no fraternal affection. But most of all Sam resented, consciously, Gillespie’s hard, inconsiderate, and demanding manner. Sam arrived at the conclusion that he felt no liking for the Negro [Tibbs], only rich satisfaction in seeing Gillespie apparently confounded. Before he could think any further, Gillespie was looking at him.

As is so often the case, almost everything about the book is better. Our setting is in South Carolina rather than Mississippi; Tibbs is from California, not Philadelphia; the murder victim is not a local industrialist, but an Italian conductor brought in to run a music festival to make the crappy little bigoted town a more popular place, with a supporting cast of sympathisers including an attractive daughter. Also, we get more inside the heads of the protagonists, and it’s the junior police office Sam Wood who Tibbs develops the relationship with, rather than his boss as in the film. Here is a didactic but well-written exchange between them:

Sam thought carefully for a minute before he asked his next question. “Virgil, I’m going to ask you something you aren’t going to like. But I want to know. How did they [the LAPD] happen to take you? No, that isn’t what I mean. I want to ask you point-blank how come a colored man got all those advantages. Now if you want to get mad, go ahead.”
Tibbs countered with a question of his own. “You’ve always lived in the South, haven’t you?”
“I’ve never been further than Atlanta,” Sam acknowledged.
“Then it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”
Sam shook his head. “Some guys down here would kill you for saying a thing like that,” he cautioned.
“You made my point,” Tibbs replied.

It’ss the first of six novels and four short stories, and I think I will keep an eye out for the rest. You can get it here.

Incidentally, this is my first blogpost about a book that I read in 2020. More to come.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)

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