Bitter Rice (1949)

Doris Dowling has a name that sticks out in the opening credits for the very reason she was an American actress and she offered up a particularly memorable role as Alan Ladd’s vitriolic wife in The Blue Dahlia. Here she’s an Italian playing the moll of a two-bit hoodlum wanted by the police.

Bitter Rice opens with a curious kind of introduction. A man stares straight at the camera, breaking the unwritten contours of the fourth wall while providing some explanation of how rice harvesting is a bumper crop not only in China and India but in Northern Italy as well. A moment later, the camera pulls away revealing this presentation is all part of Radio Turin and suddenly the circumstances of the film are instantly placed in a palpable setting.

The lithe even upbeat nature of the picture allows us to fall into the world almost immediately. We have a milieu of migrant workers crossed with bustling train stations, lovers, policemen, and wanted fugitives all playing out in front of us as we try to take in the stimuli and come to grips with everything. The wanted man, named Walter (Vittorio Gassman), tries to mask himself by dancing with a pretty young field worker (Silvana Mangano). She gladly flaunts her dancing in exchange for attention as she’s accompanied by her portable gramophone.

In the aftermath of a chase, Francessca (Dowling) disappears into the crowd of workers to lay low with their cache while her boyfriend flees in order to stay out of the clutches of the police. If it’s not apparent already, a passing street vendor lets us know some priceless jewels were stolen from The Grand Hotel.

If it’s not apparent already, this opening gambit has the kind of thrust we might expect from Hollywood, not a backcountry Italian film, and it’s evident Giuseppe De Santis is well aware of the mechanisms of a thriller. However, he also allows his picture to sink back into rhythms that one would feel much more accustomed to with neorealism and a movie set in the province of Vercelli.

Suddenly a tale of illegals and registered workers is given a new context but timeless relevance to this very day. Francesca does not have a license, but she befriends the saucy young dancer, Silvana, who does her best to assuage the foremen and get her new companion on the ever-crucial list of approval. Her chances are tenuous at best, but Francesca, like so many others, has no other choice.

I couldn’t help thinking, with her chewing gum and sizzling hot music, Silvana is bred out of the same world that supplied movie posters of Gilda in Bicycle Thieves. It’s this influx of American product in its many modes — a new form of cultural dominance — steamrolling the former fascism into submission to good ol’ American capitalism.

The way she flaunts herself and becomes the focal point of the picture, I couldn’t help but compare her to Virginia Mayo in some of her saucier roles like Best Years of Our Lives or White Heat — down to the gum chewing. If it were an American film, Bitter Rice would fit somewhere within the landscape of The Grapes of Wrath or maybe Border Incident.

There’s little doubt it has a kind of collective political philosophy to present — its own vein of social commentary — and it delivers it not only through narrative, but visual depictions of the life these people are subjected to.

In one breathless comment, Silvana tells a soldier (Raf Vallone) posted nearby, “In North America everything is electric!” He’s informed enough to know “even the chair is electric…” As a side note, the Italian constitution completely abolished the death penalty for all common and civil crimes starting in 1948. Already it presents a kind of ideological chafing that must be contended with.

Upon their arrival, the rice workers receive a hero’s welcome, and we are reminded this is a yearly ritual with its own unique patterns. There’s something marvelous about taking part in these seemingly familiar habits even as we see them for the first time as an audience.

The packing of mattresses with straw, the throwing of hats to all the field hands who catch them out of the air en masse. It’s strangely riveting. Or there are the mating customs played out year after year with men yelling over the wall to the fair maidens below, searching for former flings and future partners.

We come to realize it’s built on its own kind of ecosystem. You have the foreman’s, the lines of workers bent over in the muck and the mire every which way, and they sing their river ballads to pass news along the line.

With the jewels to get between them, Francesca and Silvana find themselves positioned among the two factions of documented and undocumented workers. It’s not a simple task, and then Walter turns up again. He can only bring trouble.

Like their opening foray, there’s something about the dance scene between Silvana and Walter burning with a palpable sensuality. But what it also does quite effectively is pluck the film out of its neorealist roots and make it even momentarily something more. It’s like a precursor to the passionate sashaying in Picnic. It feels like very much a Hollywood creation and yet it’s simply De Santis’s version of it.

Likewise, the film is not totally averse to forging its own version of a love triangle (or diamond) with Francesca and Silvana finding themselves attracted and repelled by the conman Walter and another character, the soldier Marco. These see-sawing relational dynamics are the fodder for unadulterated melodrama exemplified by violent pursuits in the pouring rain, passionate embraces in mountains of rice, and a great deal more.

While the rest of the harvesters get overtaken with merriment in the wake of a wedding and subsequent beauty contest, there’s something much more catastrophic going on in the background. Silvana becomes the self-destructive queen of it all.

By the end, I stand totally astounded. Bitter Rice jumps off the deep end going from Italian Neorealism toward gut-busting, blistering drama with the dark tinges of noir. This is what it borrows from Hollywood quite effectively, reminiscent of a picture like Border Incident or even Cape Fear. In tight quarters, violence becomes especially animalistic. When a beast feels cornered, he must lash out.

Also, I still am fascinated to know why Doris Dowling was cast in a film that was otherwise completely Italian, and yet there’s something rather ironic and bewitching in her and Magnano becoming cultural foils for one another. It becomes a far more complicated portrait of the corrupting forces of greed and capitalism.

Dowling, as the quintessential, steadfast Italian girl, and the Italian actress as a poisoned vessel of sensual pop culture materialism. What’s more, it leaves a truly incisive impression and that’s most important of all. You won’t soon forget a film like this, and it just might have the power to captivate viewers on both sides of the globe with its pulpy sensibilities.

4.5/5 Stars

Paisan (1946)

“Paisan” feels like a ubiquitous term. At the very least, it seems to have entered into a shared vernacular most Americans understand. And of course, this is part of the reason Roberto Rosselini’s follow-up to Rome Open City employs the word.

His newfound audience would be able to appreciate its very simple meaning with some amount of recognition. But it hardly seems like a ploy because it illustrates the core themes of the picture. And this is not done through an epic narrative stretched out over a couple hours time. It is built out of these mini-scenarios coming to represent a breadth of WWII experience between Italians and Americans.

We open in 1943 in Sicily with a group of American soldiers making their way through the villages for recon. As has a habit of happening in these cross-cultural pictures, the English language sounds like tin to the ear, but when they meet our first Italian characters and the dialogue is interspersed, we immediately get something richer and more intriguing because we have both languages dancing off one another and fighting for some primacy over the scenes.

Much of the movie is negotiated in these spaces in-between what is understood and what must be inferred and left only to the imagination. The benefit of subtitles gives us a privileged position, but not all of these characters have the same luxury.

Even when one soldier is called upon to keep watch over their guide in the caves — a young Italian girl looking for her family — we settle on something so basic. It’s their lack of communication and it can invoke fear and conflict, but it can also remind us of our most basic commonalities.

Conversation about cows and milk progress as the soldier reminisces about his family back home in photos. This pleasant interchange is really only a momentary flame, quickly snuffed out. Because we are reminded there is a war at hand and conflict comes from the outside and kills their moment together.

Before we are left to dwell too much on the present, we march ever onward toward Naples. Here is a tale we might see from De Sica and later in Germany Year Zero. It’s a story of youthful vagrants — one named Pasquale — who lives on the streets buzzing around G.I.s like a misquito looking to suck them dry out of pure necessity. It’s an extraordinary scene to watch the young boy latch onto a drunken black MP (Dots Johnson).

Their saga drags them all across town and, again, they hold two-sided conversations that are totally at odds with one another. As they sit on a pile of rumble together, it strikes me how this little boy sees the man for what he has. Yes, he’s black, but he’s American, and what a privilege that is. He runs off with his boots with a kind of fatalistic inevitability and that could be the end of it.

Instead, they meet again in another chance encounter. The soldier seeks restitution and yet Joe’s attempt to get back his stolen property feels almost inconsequential when he recognizes the desolation around him. This disparity is especially complicated when you put it next to the hypocrisy of racial discrimination back home.

He represents wealth and prosperity and still must feel some relegation to second-class citizenship in his own right. In 1946 Harry Truman had yet to integrate the military and, at best, even this felt like a symbolic victory at best.

The way Paisan links together these individual studies in character and relationship means the movie offers up this extraordinary breadth while still maintaining a hypersensitive level of intimacy. Because it takes a single interaction between disparate people and allows them to play out in such a way they come to represent something so much broader.

Later, it’s June, 1944. There’s a voice in the darkness shouting about American cigarettes ready to smoke. Glen Miller’s “In The Mood” is instant shorthand, and it coincides with a dance hall packed with folks. This is a new Rome from the one in Rosselini’s original film, until the military police soon shake up the joint and send the locals into a tizzy.

A fugitive in furs (Maria Michi) evades the authorities and picks up a soldier boy (Gar Moore) on the street over cigarettes. Remember, this is the era of Now Voyager and Bogey and Bacall. They are the cultural tastemakers. It’s a portrait of how even a short span of time — 6 months — can change people drastically, where the hopeful optimism and jubilation of the liberation can quickly be displaced with rowdy opportunism and disillusionment. And with it, a final reunion is precluded in a turn of events that might as well be anticipating the wistful fates of Jacques Demy over 15 years later.

The movie continues in Florence along the Arno River. Here a young Allied nurse (Harriet Medin), who knows the area intimately from time abroad, sets off on a singular mission to find an artisan friend, who is currently in the midst of the local skirmishes. The streets are full of firefights playing out in unsentimental terms.

In one way it feels ludicrous watching this woman and a fellow searcher streaking through the treacherous zones of no-man’s-land, and yet we cannot turn away. In a Hitchcock movie, we might term the arbitrary goal they are pursuing the Macguffin. It makes no difference.

I’ve come to realize that Italian Neorealism has come to signify a kind of emotional truth paired with authentic visuals. It’s not documentary, but it takes the layers and contours of the real world to tell what feels like mini tragedies wrapped up in these individual segments.

Paisan keeps on offering up these nuggets that intrigue me. I think of the next story, which feels like a more peaceful, mundane tale about three American chaplains who rest at the local monastery. There’s so much benevolence even as we are reminded the vocation they follow is unified the world over.

One of the visitors tells his peer, “I think one can really be at peace with the Lord without removing themselves from the world. After all, it was created for us. The world is our parish.” These words feel like they come straight from Martin Luther, a man who looked to democratize the Christian faith and break any vocational dichotomies.

Sure enough, he’s a Protestant and another man is a Jew. This revelation causes a wave of worry to come over the local Holy Men. Surely these guests are lost. They have not found the path because their beliefs are marred by inaccuracies and flaws (possibly even heresy). Rather than digging into this spiritual discourse, it settles for a kind of moral stability, not quite an inclusive gospel but certainly a call for tolerance and appreciation across the religious ranks.

In the final chapter, Italian Partisans and American OSS fight a desperate guerilla war against the impending Germans. It’s not a chapter of history we consider in detail, but we are placed in the moment so we forcibly comprehend the exhausting futility of their tactical battles. They live day to day constantly striving to stay out of reach of a tireless enemy. The only thing keeping them alive is their fierce camaraderie. They fight for something larger than themselves.

The ending of Paisan is matter-of-fact even as the imagery is bleak, and it feels like a callback to the opening story. We are reminded of the utter inhumanity of war, but Paisan was obviously meant to be used as a tool of mutual healing between the U.S. and Italy. Because it’s the humanity bleeding out of the movie coming to the fore, more than any amount of tragedy.

4.5/5 Stars

Umberto D. (1952)

I recall in middle school I was giving a current event on the horrible conditions in a hospital for war veterans. The handyman who just happened to be in our classroom overheard my report and was moved to speak. He shared his displeasure not at me but at a system that would so completely fail these people who had sacrificed so much.

As a film, Umberto D. ably tackles many of these same ideas while also suggesting to me how seamlessly Vittorio De Sica can move in documenting varying subsets of humanity. He’s often remembered for his child actors and the numerous untrained performers he put before his camera.

It’s a reminder of how, rather like Robert Bresson, he knew the types he wanted on the screen, “normal” people with features that have now become iconic all these years later. I think of Martin LaSalle in Pickpocket, Anne Wiazemsky, or even Balthazar the donkey.

But whereas Bresson always seemed to be engaged in his actors most specifically for their movements and how he could dispel them down to their most basic entities within the context of his films’ action, De Sica was always a director totally enamored with the contours of his characters as living, breathing human beings who have to go out and make a living like any of us.

In Umberto D. it’s the eponymous character (Carlo Battisti) and his dog. Part of the magic is how De SIca found people who could inform his faux reality and make it sing with what feels like a deeply honest truth. Carlo Battisti is no longer a college lecturer nor is he an actor. In the confines of this film, he is Umberto Domenico Ferrari.

Although it’s a film dedicated to De Sica’s father, it’s never heavy-handed in its implementation or maudlin in a way to manipulate emotions out of us. The story opens simply with retirement-age marchers protesting in a plaza. They take issue with how low their pensions are especially after having devoted their entire lives to work. Instead of being heard, they are hustled out by local cops in jeeps. They are seen at best as doddering old fools and at worst as a public nuisance.

He must settle instead with taking his dog Flike home to his small domicile. There’s a lovely ordinariness in the full spectrum of his apartment as the camera pans around the room. Umberto settles down to his chair still grumbling about paying rent for such a dump as the young maid gets ready to cut up a chicken.

The peppy 15-year-old Maria-Pia Casilio feels perfectly suited for her part like Battisti, and they make a venerable pair. It feels reminiscent of the two co-workers in Ikiru. The disparity in age somehow highlights how they are able to spur one another on, joining their bright-eyed naivete and jaded experience to encourage one another in unknowable ways. 

It’s soon apparent his money problems follow him everywhere. His stingy landlady (Lina Gennari) is prepared to evict him by the end of the month if he doesn’t come up with his back rent; she’s making it as difficult for him as possible. It’s very plain she doesn’t what to bargain with him and yet she’s more than willing to make allowances for trysts as long as their money is good.

Umberto is incensed, but he has to manage the best he can, hocking all his belongings while he battles through a fever. If the movie made up of a recurring motif it might be how the old man is systematically belittled and disregarded. The building is getting refurbished with new paint and wallpaper, but the painters have no regard for his space. They have work to do.

A doctor coolly dismisses his tonsilitis because of his age. He’s already lived a decently long life so why bother? Street vendors won’t haggle with him and force him to buy useless stuff that he doesn’t want just to pay a taxi fare. Old work colleagues look at him as a lucky man, free of hassles and living the good life; they fail to notice the signs of his discontent. And finally, there are a husband and wife who mind a household of mutts and strays.

Umberto has ideas of leaving him with a husband and wife who live with a pack of mutts. Again, it’s not stated, but he doesn’t have to. We know this is his final act of love as he dishes out all the money he has left and feigns a trip. It’s all for show, but it would be worth it if Flike was guaranteed a good home.

It’s better than the pound, death in no uncertain terms, but he slowly realizes he cannot bear to do it. It’s not good enough and so he takes his dog away. A little girl’s parents scorn the idea of taking in the cur.

How he knows them and where she came from was only a passing query. Yet again he’s been brutalized. It feels like people are very pointedly rejecting him and he’s helpless. What is he to do?

There are several times throughout the movie it becomes obvious. There’s a glance out a window down to the dizzying cobblestone below. Later Umberto has Flike in a near-chokehold as he disregards the warning bells and totters toward the train tracks. Nothing happens but both instances, first by the direction of our gaze and then by Umberto’s actions, you know he’s thought about doing — ending it all. It would be so easy. But then he thinks of Flike, his best friend, and the one that means more to him than anything.

It never hinges on one singular apex of drama though it does feel like the movie is going increasingly toward the nadir. If I recall The Bicycle Thief — a film with the most crushing of exit points — it’s not simply about poverty at all; it’s about what that does to an individual’s sense of self-worth and dignity. Because De Sica makes us see these people as worthwhile, if only for the mere reason that he takes his time to put them in front of his camera.

However, Umberto D. differs from many of its predecessors because there is no obvious inflection point. We get this full-bodied totally present sense of who he is without a preconceived notion of drama. The picture never goes there, instead, leaning into the sobering sense of desolation and angst.

The fact that De Sica claimed this to be the personal favorite of his film and that it was dedicated to his father seem to be interrelated. I know nothing about the man and if we’ve seen Umberto D. we don’t need to. Not that they’re one and the same; it’s his plight saying so much about how we should treat not only our parents but our elders in general.

I’ve never forgotten that man who came into our classroom because he was right. What a sorry world we live in when the men and women who have served faithfully and put their faith in a system are so rudely cast aside. If I’m to understand this film, it’s not simply a social or political issue, though these play a part; this is about searching out and affirming the worth of other people.

4.5/5 Stars

Shoeshine (1946)

Shoeshine was penned by a whole host of people: Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, Cesare Giulio Viola, and Cesare Zavattini. However, it’s quite easy to focus on Zavattini due to his longtime partnership with De Sica dating back to The Children Are Watching from a few years prior. Their lucrative collaboration would produce a string of well-remembered works, not least among them The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D, and even Sunflower in the 1970s.

Together they created stories out of deceptively simple scenarios that always find a way to be imbued with raw emotional truth. We are quickly reminded of how many of De Sica’s greatest films were pictures of youth. In this one, two shoeshine boys are infatuated with a beautiful horse they wish to buy for their own.

When they return to the city we get an immediate roving sense of the post-war world on the streets, not unlike The Bicycle Thief. Giuseppe and Pasquale feel fully integrated and familiar with their world, chatting up their acquaintances as they work away shining shoes.

We soon come to realize how they are a part of the postwar economy (“Shoeshine Joe!”) and they even manage to unwittingly get themselves into the thriving black marketeering racket. It’s usually people like them who end up paying their dues on the inside in place of others. They aren’t exactly innocent bystanders, but their crime certainly doesn’t fit the punishment.

They end up in a boy’s prison, clamming up to protect a no-good older brother who we never see again. He’s not of primary importance. Instead, we witness how two friends who weather thick and thin together are forced to separate — resigned to separate holding cells.

However, there has to be a moment of reversal where the narrative locks in on a dramatic question ripping the story to its core. This is the mother fleeing for her lover in The Children are Watching Us or the man choosing to steal in The Bicycle Thief. Sure enough, Shoeshine introduces such a moment of its own. Because the one element not in doubt throughout the movie is the camaraderie between these two boys. Until it is…

Giuseppe receives a tearful visit and learns his older brother was taken in; immediately, he knows Pasquale squealed, and regardless, of the circumstances, he feels totally betrayed. He doesn’t realize his buddy has been played for a fool as the policeman tricked him into a speedy confession. But the means make no difference. Now there is an irrevocable wedge between the friends because a sacred vow of silence has been broken. The very bedrock of the friendship has been spurned.

Whether merited or not, one betrayal reaps another in the form of a planted file and the rival factions form around their cellmates only serving to escalate the animosity. There is no other way to settle matters than a bloody fistfight in the shower rooms. But this can never solve the hurt; it only pushes them farther apart.

Still, despite the wave of spite between them,  the veil of naivete and a vow to truthfulness is not totally lost on these boys. In the proceeding court case where they are both brought before a judge, the defense attorney looks for a scapegoat — the boy without a family — but his young defendant cannot understand how personal utility (for himself and his brother) trumps telling the truth. It’s a foreign concept to him. Kids are not made for the mercenary games of bargaining in the courtroom. Their moral codes are of a different kind.

Later, during an in-house movie screening, there’s the inevitable escape attempt because it’s not natural for anyone (boys included) to be caged and so a few of them make a unified break for it. It feels reminiscent of some of the old Cagney movies or other prison noir, but of course, it was a contemporary if not a predecessor to some of the greats like Brute Force and White Heat.

However, if you look at the picture in terms of genre conventions, what sets it apart is the youthful perspective because we see something so precious — that of friendship — get crushed as hearts grow cold with bitterness. Again, we find our two boys in compromising positions, their rocky friendship put under one last round of duress.

The ending is nothing short of devastation where all the dreams and innocence of youth are summarily crushed in one tragic act of inhumanity that can never be undone. One can barely imagine the film after “Fin” comes up on the screen because it feels like De Sica’s story is so thoroughly engaged with the present moment and when it dissipates there’s nothing left. All we have to go on are our feelings of anguish for these boys and the broken system that has no capacity to get better any time soon.

I think this part of what Orson Welles meant when he says of Shoeshine, “the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life.” In a deeply profound way, you very rarely consider the tenets of filmmaking at work while watching the film. Perhaps like Chaplin or some of the classical masters, De Sica speaks to us through resounding images we can understand intuitively, suffusing them with the most honest of emotions, and allowing the scenes to wash over us.

Suddenly, time has passed and the full breadth of an emotional arc is realized. You get totally lost in the moment — overtaken by the pure, overwhelming force of cinema. I’m no expert when it comes to describing the main facets of neorealism as embodied by the works of De Sica, Roberto Rosselini, and others. However, beyond any kind of post-war malaise and on-location shooting with untrained actors, it seems like it comes down to this intimate frequency of resonance. We realize that we too share in their story and their experiences by just being human.

4.5/5 Stars

The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

What begins as a day out at the cinema turns into an excursion out to the local park watching a Punch and Judy show with all the kiddies. A mother (Isa Pola) is out in public with her boy (Luciano De Ambrosis) and his scooter — sharing is hard whatever generation — though her mind is on other things aside from parenting.

Because we also have the core dramatic situation playing out only meters away unbeknownst to the little boy. His mother comes across a man — a lover — and he vows to take her away for good. They can have a life together, and the boy catches the end of it, though he probably cannot fully comprehend that more is going on than a few pleasantries. Why should he? Because children are not normally predisposed to distrust people’s intentions. Especially their parents. That only comes with time.

This sense of a child’s perspective framing adult situations is very much a precursor to Fallen Idol and its own dilemma involving a kind of heartbreaking, illicit romance. In this iteration, she seems to make her choice once and for all.

You can see it in her face and through her actions; she loves the boy dearly and then the door closes and her face is gone. So too is her presence in the household. We are conditioned and still hardly believe this could be happening.

They are a middle-class family nevertheless packed into a building with nosy neighbors and landlords — it’s the kind of environment where gossip spreads like wildfire. We have a father (Emilio Cigoli) holding down a job while trying to figure out what to do with his son. First, he’s looked after by the housekeeper, and then a sister-in-law who works as a tailor with a host of other women.

They become Prico’s surrogate babysitters. But the division of responsibility end there as the boy is sent out to the country to live under his imperious grandmother, cared for by his older cousin Paolina. Though few of these people are callous, it’s evident how quickly abandonment issues arise with everyone passing the buck. Still, there is a certain amount of care depicting all involved.

Because what sets its impressions apart from Brief Encounter or even Fallen Idol is how the “other spouse” in this case is not asinine or tyrannical but a person of dignity who wants the best for his boy and does not want his wife to be spoken poorly of.

De Sica is considered one of the formative figures in Italian Neorealismb and yet the movie has several sequences that are cut to the emotion. Aboard a rumbling train, the passing dreams flow through the boy’s feverish, listless mind culminating with his mother departing into the recesses of his memories. It’s a near-premonition while simultaneously speaking to his longings. I mean this sincerely; sometimes a boy’s best friend is his mother.

Sure enough, she comes to pay a visit when her little darling is in bed and his father is away. But she doesn’t take off her hat. Prico begs her to take it off — to stay with them — and it’s a prolonged moment of agony. Because she is not a heartless woman. She cannot bear to break from her family completely. Thus, she came back and makes the reparations of these relationships all the more difficult. Where can they go from here?

I never feel like I am being played like melodrama because the situations ring with a very core and incisive truth flowing out of the characters. In these adult situations between husbands and wives, children are very real and present collateral damage caught up in the middle.

They might be innocent bystanders but they are crucially affected. It’s irreparable and there’s no denying it feels like an uphill climb to repair the relationships. How helpless the little boy is and how oblivious he remains about the situation. There can be two levels of understanding going on in one scene and De Sica allows us to be privy to both.

Part two of the film offers a change of location and with it a change of tone. It’s an understandable decision because what it does is provide a reprieve. The family seems nominally happy again frolicking at the beach on their vacation. They are making a valiant effort to pick up the pieces and come together again.

Alas, we already know it cannot last. The flirtatious beachcomber Dada seems like another portent as she holds court with her amorous friends. Eventually, Andrea leaves and his wife and son stay behind. They’re both vulnerable. She to a visit from her former lover, and Prico because his mother is not around; he tries to run away. It’s the habitual cycle of infidelity and resulting fear and abandonment that cannot be broken.

Later in the film, the little boy shares a POV similar to that found in Fallen Idol peering down at the world below him although in this case, it’s watching his tearful father leave him behind at his new boy’s school. Again, it’s a scene injected with the most sincere of emotions, and they only build from there. Because for one final moment Prico must reunite with his mother. He’s already beside himself, and he feels so totally betrayed.

He goes toward the reliable arms of his housekeeper, then, looks up at his mother’s solemn face and tentatively backs away. She’s done so much to hurt him and his response is valid, and yet regardless of what words you put to the moment, it still sears the heart.

Obviously, the movie takes place in a specific era, but there is an air of timelessness about it. Because one cannot help but consider the war years and what impact they might have had on the production. In truth, the picture was shot in 1942 and not released in 1944. During that time De Sica was offered a position by the fascist film industry, which he purportedly refused.

Hardly a pro-Fascist diadem, it would become a stunning prototype for a new kind of cinema that would take the international world by storm in the post-war years. It still astounds me I had never heard of this early De Sica work. Part of the reason is due to how it moves me like some of his finest works do. It’s hard to leave a movie like this and not feel changed.

4.5/5 Stars

Babette’s Feast (1987)

I love fairy tales where we know conspicuously that we are being told a story. They can be delivered by Peter Falk in The Princess Bride, Edward Everett Horton in Fractured Fair Tales, or in this case, Ghita Norby.

Let it be said that there’s something inherently peaceful about the rhythms of Babette’s Feast. We meet two sisters devoted to simple acts of charity and good works generally living a simple life of tranquility.

Years prior they grew up on the right and left hand of their father, who was a local preacher, beloved by all in their little community of thatched roofs and decent folk. They are a world away from French courtesans and the social elite of the age. In this regard, the movie’s set design runs the gamut from a puritan-like asceticism to ornate interiors worthy of 19-century royalty. One of these outsiders is a young soldier (Gudmar Wivesson).

Riding upon his steed, he’s taken by one of the daughters, Martine, so angelic with golden hair and scintillating eyes. He’s never seen someone so glorious. And so he joins their little commune, all gathered around the table. Yet he is not made for their life and so he takes his leave to return to the world he knows — a world less harsh and cruel to the senses. His friends tease him for being defeated by some long-faced sectarians, but if it is a defeat, then it is one that stays with him.

He is not the only one. The Jutlands conquers others too… Next arrives an exuberant barrel-chested French baritone. He’s revered and fawned over by all the literati (including Bibi Andersson), but it is in this little town where he finds someone who makes his heart sing. It’s the minister’s other daughter Filippa.

The jovial Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) requests the honor to help train up the young lady and refine her vocal talents. It’s hardly a pretense as his tutelage is inspired and brimming with impassioned vigor. It’s contagious. But he too fades away. The devoted daughter recognizes her father would never approve of anything further.

And so years passed, their father died, and the two women, still unmarried, shepherd and care for their local parish. We can make allowances — time progresses and is condensed so easily because, again, we are working within the parameters of a kind of parable or fairy tale.

Intuitively it becomes a kind of rumination on aging and what that means — not just for to pious spinsters — but also how our joys and the manner in which we conduct our days become affected. Are they injected with renewed vigor or the kind of enervating melancholy that builds up almost imperceptibly so we just come to accept eour plight with passivity?

The population of their community is aging as well, and with it comes a schism of bickering and discord within the ranks of the disciples. The sisters look on with wide-eyed bewilderment. Surely this is not what they worked so hard to cultivate in their father’s absence.

However, the sisters also gained a housekeeper in the form of Babette, a French woman seeking asylum and recommended at the behest of an old friend. Stephane Audran is starkly different than my memories of her in Claude Chabrol’s work or the representation of vacuity of the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Here she is a saint gifted with a hand for cooking and a generous heart. She can be a blessing to these people.

It takes some time to recognize what the film is doing — what magic spell it’s casting. The sisters have a meager vision of cobbling together a modest supper to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their little congregation’s founder, but Babette requests to throw a banquet. She’s set on the idea so the sisters acquiesce.

The whole town is agog when her procession of goods comes imported from France: qual, turtle, and wine of all things! They are wary of being exposed to potentially dangerous forces in the form of such decadent food and drink, and so they form a pact with their small clan to not speak a word about these provisions.

It also strikes one as a tactic to avoid any unwanted gossip because suddenly it becomes another arena for “good Christian virtue” to play out. They are too blind to see an alabaster jar of perfume being poured out on the feet of a guest. In other words, they are out of step with the moment.  It’s not hard to detect Biblical underpinnings.

Babette’s Feast is somehow a movie drenched in the rhetoric and messages of Ecclesiastes. A graying soldier (Jarl Kulle), who we know must be vaguely familiar, looks into a mirror solemnly and says, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” It puts words to a life spent striving after things all for naught.

It’s also easy to conjure up the words “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!” The parishioners don’t live in this manner, and yet if this picture’s ending is any indication maybe a certain amount of uninhibited joy is a balm and not simply a cursed reminder of how transient and finite our lives are. Could it be, if we flip the paradigm, that a feast is not simply a coping tactic, a way to muddle through this life, but it’s actually a sign or a foretaste of something better?

This act of radical extravagance at the hands of Babette is not to be taken only in a literal sense. It’s not a moral prerogative about how to spend one’s funds, but this parable points to something else of vital importance. Because the table setting is so foreign to these folks — it’s so ornate — the food equally rich and extravagant.

Is it a waste — such rich food lavished on people who don’t appreciate it? These are my immediate reactions. I’m no foodie, but this is not the point. For Babbette, it is an act of love, and to have even one person — the general — appreciate her toilings is reward enough.

The look of incredulousness and utter admiration for each new course and subsequent drink is something to relish. His face lights up like it hasn’t for a long, long time. Can I state the obvious and say it is a joy to watch these people eat — living vicariously through the experience set before them? And something contagious comes over all of us (audience included). The meal seems to have powers beyond mere food and drink.

Of course, this isn’t the end. It has greater import than she could ever imagine. The memories come flooding out as the gathering becomes a kind of conduit for community. Nothing overtly supernatural occurs, and yet it feels like no less of a miracle all thanks to Babette. The sisters realize it too and marvel at her talents with gratitude. Filippa joyously affirms her, “This is not the end Babette. In paradise, you will be the great artist God meant you to be.”

Her words can’t help but remind me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” Tolkien was of course well-versed in the creation and appreciation of fairy stories, but in this particular short story, he highlights a middling man who spends his whole life painting a leaf. His name just about sums up his existence. He’s never satisfied, never can quite see the whole picture, and never accomplishes enough to finish what he started.

And then he dies…It sounds like a paltry existence, and yet when he gets to the other side, he sees the full glory and the magnificence of the tree his leaf was a part of. Suddenly his preceding life gained more meaning, not less.

If we are to believe Babette’s Feast, Tolkien, and fairy tales, then this is not the end. There is a happy ending still to come. Herein lies one of the lasting potencies of this brand of stories. They tap into our deepest longings in youth and even as we grow older, I would be remiss to say that we didn’t still want them to become true. Let’s hope we’ll get to feast on the plenteous bounty of the likes of Babette someday soon. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

5/5 Stars

Nothing But a Man (1964) and Human Dignity

I know Ivan Dixon from Hogan’s Heroes and I’m hardly ashamed of that. He is a lifelong friend forged out of days poring over episodes on classic television stations. Whether he was satisfied with the work is an entirely different conversation, but I am thankful for what he brought to the ensemble in terms of humor and his reliable presence.

Then, recent viewings of Too Late Blues and A Raisin in The Sun, introduced Dixon into my life again in a renewed context. It was a new way to appreciate him even as I’ve become more aware of his prolific work behind the camera in more recent years.

However, in Nothing But a Man, he showcases a depth of character and a facet of the human experience, that frankly, was never accessible in a zany half-hour CBS comedy about American prisoners in a German Luftstalag or any of the smaller film roles he was bequeathed.

The images open with jackhammers as a gang of black section hands help lay down the railroad tracks. It’s hardly breezy work. In return for their sweat and middling conditions, they get a wage and a certain amount of freedom. In the evenings they can be found playing cards or frequenting the local beer parlors with “Heatwave” jamming away in the background. It’s lo-fi instant ambiance and Motown proves to be the perfect soundtrack for this film.

Although he’s not much of a churchgoer, Duff Anderson does show up at a local church meeting in Alabama for some food and southern hospitality. The girl dishing out the meal catches his eye. Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln) is the local teacher and the preacher’s daughter. This feels like an instant red flag. Anderson’s not exactly a moral saint, but he relishes her company.

There’s a modest kinship rapidly blooming between them. Even so, Nothing But a Man is a film that feels attentive to the thoughts and feelings of its characters spoken not simply through their words but the expressions on their faces and their actions. Dixon has such classically handsome features, and there’s something unequivocally lovely and unassuming about Abbie Lincoln’s smile. They bring the best out of each other as their romance strengthens.

However, there are other underlying issues to contend with. He has a young son, although he’s never been married before. The reverend looks at him with suspicion. He’s not the marrying kind. Even he knows it, but as a bastion of society, and a mediator between the black and white communities, Josie’s father is not welcoming of any disruption to his moral standing. It’s easy to feel for him even as the gravitational pull of empathy drags us in other directions.

Duff tells the preacher, “Us colored folks got a lotta churchgoing. It’s the white folks who need it real bad.” Of course, the irony of the words can’t be lost on us. Most if not all the white folks have their own churches to go to on Sunday, but it has no positive impact on their lives. I’m sure neither race has a total monopoly on this lukewarm reality. It’s human nature.

But there’s still another question to be answered: How did two Jewish men from up North hone in on such a resonating story of a black community, by taking New Jersey locales and fashioning them into the Deep South? It has to begin with this same kind of personal identification — some form of shared empathy — because they could not get close to the material any other way.

One thing that comes with watching films en masse is how they have the ability to inform one another. Take Pressure Points about a black psychiatrist treating a white neo-Nazi. He espouses vitriolic rhetoric about turning Blacks and Jews into the world’s scapegoats. He never uses the exact words, but it’s plain he believes them to be subhuman. I’m no expert, but it’s difficult for me to think of any group that has been more oppressed than these two.

However, this is not Stanley Kramer at work. It’s not a film about messages or social significance. Instead, we are allowed the privilege to walk alongside this man and woman, and even for a few moments become privy to their circumstances as depicted on screen.

It becomes apparent how the specter of racism dwells over every element of daily life. It cannot be conveniently compartmentalized or ignored because it always has a way of rearing its ugly head. White co-workers try and whip up “friendly” small-talk couched with subtle belittling and microaggressions. And you cannot have a quiet car ride without being accosted.

For whatever his negligible crimes against humanity might be, Duff is considered a troublemaker and standoffish. He won’t be cowed. The next stage in the systematic onslaught is bodily threats — he’s chastised mercilessly as a gas station attendant —  only to be laid off out of fear of retaliation.  And it doesn’t stop there as he’s totally blackballed and all the work propositions mysteriously dry up all around him. There is no deliverance from such a sphere of existence.

His primary problem is that he’s a proud man in an environment that is not ready to give him the respect he requires. What’s striking about Dixon’s portrayal is how it never feels combative or confrontational. That’s never his M.O., but he also will not degrade or ingratiate himself as a basic act of survival. There are some things that run deeper still, and he knows no other way than to be true to himself.

Self-proclaimed experts always talk about the problem with families is the lack of a father figure. But fathers need work and here you see the issue in its totality. It plays out throughout this movie. There’s hopelessness, then desperation, and a lashing out at all those close at hand — wives and children. However, while all this looks to be another portrait of dissolution and a man’s restlessness in a world that won’t let him be, it actually rings with a final note of hope.

I would never accuse Sidney Poitier of grandstanding, but there is a sense Dixon has the same substance as his peer, but this story feels even more mundane than the bulk of Poitier’s Hollywood work. The canvas and the drama are distilled to these very humble forms, and yet there is something powerful in these simple building blocks.

And if there is not a Hollywood happy ending, since this picture shuns everything that is expected by contemporary conventions, Duff does maintain his sense of human dignity. It’s all right there in the title. He was never asking much of others. Never looking for trouble. He just wants to be given the inalienable right to be a man.

For some, that’s easier than it is for others. Let us strive tirelessly for the day when all can claim that they really and truly are created equal. Nothing But a Man is a poignant reminder that this is still far from a reality.

I always knew Ivan Dixon was special, but I will never look at him the same way again. Abbey Lincoln also won a new fan today. I wish I had been aware of her career and her music sooner. But there’s no time like the present to rectify the situation. Let’s not live under the lie that says otherwise.

4.5/5 Stars

Rushmore (1998)

Through his quintessential use of camera, space, and symmetry, we already see the formation of Wes Anderson’s now easily attributed style incarnated in Rushmore. It makes us aware we are watching a movie just as it makes us keenly aware of the filmmaker. There is a meticulous storyboarded quality to it with telling POV and overhead shots laying the groundwork for his unmistakable aesthetic.

For some, this is a turn-off. It totally ruins the so-called suspension of disbelief. You don’t want to be reminded you are watching a  movie. You want to disappear into it. But Anderson’s style is so particular it’s hard not to marvel especially because it’s not simply a case of form over substance. This movie is about something meaningful.

Jason Schwartzmann proves himself an exquisite choice to play our lead. Max Fischer is a young teenager with such an impressive array of extracurriculars and side hobbies, he has no recourse to fail all his classes at Rushmore prep school. He’s too much of a driven, daydreamy kind of person to get stuck with his textbooks for hours on end. His aspirations seem to be focused on something more. 

One of those might be romantic love as the ancients would come to understand it. I think of the scene where he first makes the acquaintance of the pretty literature teacher, Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams) on the bleachers. Anderson frames them in individual shots, but then Max keeps on sliding out and back into the frame. It’s not in a continuous camera movement. Instead, these orchestrated moments add together to give us a sense of what’s going on – both good-humored and slightly awkward. 

But we must also talk about Bill Murray. I’m no Murray historian, but Rushmore and with it, the actor’s continuous collaboration with Anderson, seems to mark a distinct shift in his career. It may not be a Reinnaissance, but it effectively took an SNL phenomenon known for comedy films like Caddyshack and Ghostbuster, only to provide him a fresh dimension.

Perhaps it was always there before, but whether it was Anderson seeing it in Murray or Murray finding inspiration in Anderson’s material, I don’t see his work in movies like Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers coming to fruition without a spark.

It’s not that Murray is unfunny in any of these roles. Instead, like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and the like, he’s able to somehow take those comic eccentricities with his own core humanity, and make it deeply impactful.

In Rushmore, Murray gets his Dustin Hoffman “Graduate” moment submerged in the pool at his son’s birthday party. The allusion is straightforward enough. Meanwhile, Max goes and falls in love with his teacher — resurrects Latin class and tries to procure her some new aquarium tanks all as devoted acts of affection. He has other passions too.

He directs his own stage version of Serpico and the lifelike train noise and walkie-talkie sound effects mimic the attention to detail Anderson would have admired. But these are not all the stage elements. Because there’s a recurring sensibility that brings attention to the performance nature of the movie, whether it’s the curtains being pulled away with the changing of the months or Max’s neverending thespian endeavors.

I’ve never known Luke Wilson’s filmography well, but I found his cameo almost endearing as he becomes the target of Max’s jealous and impudent ire. He’s not willing to relinquish Ms. Cross to any man even if he has no hold on her either as her junior.

This and other shenanigans get him expelled from Rushmore. Being caught smoking or failing his classes is far too mundane. He tears up the baseball field for the ground-breaking of his new aquarium. Thereafter he’s off to public school with a wounded heart, though he encounters several sympathetic spirits including Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka).

Still, the movie becomes a love triangle with a 15-year-old and Murray’s grown man(child) going at it in their attempts to hurt one another like vengeful kids in the schoolyard. It proves how fickle they can be. But that’s not to say unlikeable. Because Herman and Max became friends and then turned into rivals. 

In fact, there’s a precociousness to Anderson’s adolescent subjects even as his adults have flaws and insecurities. It’s as if all his characters are on the same plane of existence. This is not Peanuts. There’s no chasm between the relatable kids and the unknowable adults. I’m not sure this makes it more realistic; Anderson does not strive for realism, but it reminds us that we all are not too dissimilar as people.

Dirk, Max’s most faithful friend, and Herman share a conversation near his car that in any other film would probably feel ludicrous; here they are able to speak to each other as equals, and they are not the only ones given this luxury.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for Rosemary because she has lost her husband, and she did not ask for Max to fall in love with her. She tries to navigate their interactions with warmth, but his boyish impulses and irrepressible spirit mean he’s never going to let her be. He can’t comprehend how one does that.  For a teenager, she must feel like Mrs. Robinson. In her own world, she’s just another confused and lonely person trying to make sense of things. 

At first, I was trying to figure out the purpose of the soundtrack: It’s full of agreeable British Invasion tracks from the likes of Chad & Jeremy or The Faces. The easiest answer is how it comes to represent nostalgia but also the prep school malaise. It’s Anderson’s version of the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack for Dustin Hoffman — compiled for a slightly different segment of society and an emerging generation. It exudes a contemplative melancholy not without its quirks and humor.

From my vantage point, I can only watch Rushmore retroactively, having seen much of Anderson’s career unfold, but it does give me a different way in which to appreciate it. Here we see him coming into his own; he has a Truffaut-like eagerness for the cinema, and money hardly seems to be the signifier or measure of his film’s success.

Now he commands larger budgets and even more intricate and sprawling productions, but Rushmore shows what he is able to do as a filmmaker with his own sense of inventiveness, flair, and surprising resonance no matter the restraints put upon him.

For me, this is often the measure of a sublime director, and Anderson signaled his ambitions to the world with this movie. I found myself instantly fond of the film, and I can see this affinity only growing with time. Again, I appreciate the allusiveness of his films — how they are steeped in movie tradition and what feels like technical virtuosity — but even more so I feel compelled by these particular characters. What’s more, I want the best for them.

4.5/5 Stars

Dishonored (1931): Marlena Dietrich, The Sultry Spy

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The premise is established in broad strokes. It’s 1915 and the remnants of the Austrian empire are caught up in war. This can only have meaning if we see some of the chaos in front of us. In this case, a prostitute lies dead in the street — with a host of onlookers crowded around — a mysterious mustachioed man eavesdropping and poking about. He’s looking for someone, listening to their conversation.

As the people walk through the streets, the sensation of rain sounds almost tinny and fake but this is part of the marvelous illusion. Because this is Joseph Von Sternberg, the famed spinner of bounteous tales offering so much to their audiences in the form of sensations and palpable milieu.

Eventually, the clandestine man — actually the chief of Austrian secret police — settles on a woman, but not just any woman. It is Marlene Dietrich in all her glory. They settle on a romantic rendezvous.

Not only does Dietrich give us so much, as is her habit, but her apartment itself is cluttered with all the sorts of trinkets that allow us to make sense of a person or at the very least appreciate them more fully.

There’s the piano. Sketches up on the walls. The place where she stashes her shoes. The little dancing figurines suspended from the ceiling. The empty bottle of wine. However, more crucial than anything else she proves her own character — she might live a meretricious lifestyle, and yet she’s a staunch loyalist and a war widow. Her allegiances are unmistakable.

It’s immediately evident Marlene is a woman in a man’s world, but she sure has her pick of the litter. Because everyone is bending over backward to escort her, to be with her, to get to know her. Her new superior is well aware of her assets supplying her a new alias — X-27 — and an assignment of vital importance to her homeland.

There’s a casual nonchalance to her when being propositioned spy work. But this only works if there’s a brazenness in the face of certain danger. She has both in equal measure. It’s true the subject matter plays as surprisingly lithe and modern for Von Sternberg as he casts his muse as a Mata Hari-inspired spy with steely poise and a touch of class. She’s an inscrutable beauty fit to play the game.

What’s lovely is how everything is delivered in between the lines. Heroes. Villains. Friends. Enemies. What’s the difference? For these people, it’s their business and so they find time for romance whatever the scenario might be. There are no hard feelings because the current climate has bred this kind of immediacy. Nothing beyond the here and now can matter. One must make the most of the moment.

Dietrich is brilliant at the masquerade party. It’s our first chance to see her in her new regalia — plumed and sequined, teeth smiling from under her disguise — and she’s only one of a myriad. It’s the most gloriously decadent party I’ve ever seen. You’ll have to see for yourself if it’s hyperbole or not.

However, X-27 has other business to attend to. Her first mark is Warner Oland a high-ranking General who’s also subsequently purported to be a turncoat. She must use the art of seduction to implicate him. But he’s not the only one.

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Captain Kranau (Victor MacLagen) was also present at the party and equally taken with the woman’s allure. He’s a Russian Agent playing the same game of cat and mouse she is. In the service, of Ford, MacLagen always felt broadly Irish. Here he seems toned down and well-fitted for the role if only for the fact he hardly tries to upstage Marlene. It’s better not to have Coop. She needs no equal in this picture and it’s true no one can outdo her. This is her story more than anyone else’s.

What more can be said as they joust back and forth globetrotting across borders and meeting under all varying degrees of circumstances? X-27 does her finest impression of a cleaning woman and a kitty cat all in one sequence. He finally has her cornered. We think this spells the end and yet she riggles free. Her wealth of secrets transcribed into music and memorized. She wins another round.

This is what becomes so riveting because the movie is constructed out of these kinds of jocular bits of leisure, but they are a pretense or a visual projection or smokescreen over a very harsh even cutthroat subject matter. He tells her in one interchange, “the more you cheat the more you lie, the more exciting you become.” It’s like a harbinger of Bond decades later.

However, lest anyone misconstrue his intentions, Von Sternberg is vehemently critical of unyielding military protocol. In fact, in a gut-wrenching final scene, it makes a young soldier blubber. He witnesses the utter cruelty of war when it comes to the rule of spy and counter-spy. Still, Marlene takes it with her usual poise — stalwart to the end — and frankly, she’s unforgettable. As she waits out her final days, her last requests are authentic to her character from the beginning. She requests her piano and the black dress she used to wear in her previous life. These are her identity. This is her uniform.

The ultimate irony of the movie is its title. Against the vociferous objects of Von Sternberg, the studio settled on “Dishonored.” But this cut-and-dry analysis of her station in life fails to understand the intent of the entire film. It’s tantamount to saying Sophie Scholl was dishonored in standing up to the Nazis or that the figure of Christ was dishonored for standing up for what he believed in, what he was called to. In X-27’s case, her guiding light was love — even love precipitated in momentary encounters — it can still be a driving source behind any human heart.

We have a fair amount of modern spy movies now anchored by female stars. Their main objective seems to be an exhibition in showing women as powerful entities, capable of kicking butt. This is fine, but sometimes there is no illusion left. No added depth of character. Dietrich is unparalleled, feeling exciting and aloof until the very last frame. We want more of her not less, but she leaves us while she’s still ahead. What a run she had with Von Sternberg, in her third picture following The Blue Angel and Morocco, with still more to come.

It’s less heralded but might just be the best of the lot. It comes quietly and then ambushes you with all its many assets — thoroughly exquisite to look at and also thematically resonate. What’s more, it has a genuine sense of fun and intrigue which isn’t always the easiest combination to come by. Its range of surprises is the kind you relish as a moviegoer. They stay with you.

4.5/5 Stars

In The Heat of The Night (1967): They Call Him Mister Tibbs

In The Heat of The Night is a testament to the collaborative nature of Hollywood. We watch Sidney Poitier step off the train. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography gives an instant texture to the world so the sweaty atmosphere is almost palpable around him.

However, one of my immediate recollections of the movie is always Ray Charles and Quincy Jones who help in creating a truly remarkable soundscape. Charles sings the title track (with lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman) setting the mood for one of the formative movies of a turbulent decade.

Although Rod Steiger becomes one of the film’s primary focal points as the gum-smacking, narrow-minded Sherrif Gillespie, it’s Warren Oates, one of the generation’s finest character actors, who’s our entry point into this community.

He’s a police officer sitting at a diner drinking a cola as the scrawny, beady-eyed attendant shoots a pesky fly with his slingshot. It’s a sweaty night in Spartan, Mississippi and already despite these mundane activities, there’s an uneasy equilibrium to the place.

Poitier has to navigate the film’s space all alone for the majority of the movie. There’s a black family who puts him up for a night, a servant (Jester Hairston) who looks at him a bit disapprovingly, a phantom black woman (Beah Richards) who runs a business at night, and of course, the host of blacks working the cotton fields. Otherwise, he’s all alone, isolated and alienated from those around him as a blatant outsider. His only solidarity is in the score and soundtrack.

If it’s not apparent already, In The Heat of The Night continues a conversation that automatically puts folks at odds and in opposition to one another. You have blacks and whites. You have North and South. You have rich and poor. All of them are visible in the movie.

For blacks in particular there are these daily barbs of indignity pervasive throughout the southern culture and totally baked into the system. Norman Jewison’s film (and Stirling Siliphants’s script) only has time to acknowledge some of them, both explicitly and implicitly.

It’s plain that when an influential man is found murdered, the first person suspected is the black man sitting at the train depot. It’s a guilty ’til proven innocent economy. Black men must also suffer the subtle humiliation of being called “Boy.” An out-of-towner like Tibbs will never hope to get a hotel. And even after weathering any number of indecencies, he finds himself cornered and physically intimidated.

The whole movie is about this even as Poitier reluctantly stinks around to bail out the less-experienced, backcountry police force. He’s doing them a favor that very few people are ready to accept.

In The Heat of The Night can theoretically be distilled down to two defining moments. The first is in the police station where Gillespie is railing on him, badgering him for all he’s worth. He asks what they call him in Philadephia and he seethes, “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! Poitier’s trademark intensity proves so gripping it’s maintained lasting resonance all these years later.

However, the film’s other defining moment is presaged by a lawn ornament calling to mind Flannery O’Connor’s wince-inducing short story “The Artificial Negro.” It’s found in an establishing shot of the Endicott Estate. Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates) owns the local cotton industry and effectively keeps the southern ecosystem alive and well from the antebellum days.

I hadn’t recalled how Tibbs trades small talk with Endicott when they pay him a house call in his greenhouse. They share a conversation about orchids, trading vernacular, and it feels amicable, at the very least. This is what they call southern hospitality. But then an ugly undercurrent is revealed and the conversation turns. Tibbs asks one question too many and gets a scathing response.

The old boy takes offense at being questioned on his own property, by a black man no less, and he lets him have it with the back of his hand. This is relatively unsurprising — another unseemly relic from the old days. What makes the moment is how Poitier strikes right back without a moment’s forethought or hesitation. It’s electric, and it’s as if all the years of southern tension are being brandished in one spontaneous reaction. It’s a show of righteous indignance, pride, and dignity. It’s also just such a human response.

Whether the moment was in the script, added later, or proposed by Poitier seems almost immaterial. It’s the fact that the moment is forever crystallized in cinema giving it a lasting cultural currency.

However, Norman Jewison’s movie does court a few more ideas. Oustide Gillespie prods Tibbs, “You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t yuh?” Poitier might be a shining knight, but his character is still wounded, proud, and simmering with pent of emotions submerged just below the surface. He wants to put Endicott away and make him pay. Gillespie’s just trying to do a job, but Tibb’s drive is something more personal. He’s looking for vengeance. It’s also enough to warrant deadly backlash.

I recently heard an interview with Jewison reminiscing about Poitier and the filming of In The Heat of The Night in the wake of his passing. The director said the following:

“I’d wanted to shoot in the South; the book takes place in Georgia and we’d moved the story to Mississippi for the movie. But we had to shoot it in a town in Illinois, called Sparta because Sidney would not go south of the Mason-Dixon line. He and Harry Belafonte…they had been arrested and attacked by guys in pickup trucks, so he refused to shoot down South.”

“Later in the shoot, I wanted to shoot some exteriors in actual Southern locations, so we talked about going to Tennessee. ‘I’ll give you four days, Norman,’ Sidney told me. So we all went down to this small town with one hotel…and it was ‘whites-only.’ So all of us, the cast and crew, ended up in a Holiday Inn a little ways away, which allowed both Blacks and whites.”

“And I’ll never forget, these pickup trucks came into the parking lot in the middle of the night, honking their horns and waking people up. I got a little nervous, so I called my crew and told them, “Get the biggest guys in the grip department and electrical department, get them over to Sidney’s room right now, we have to protect him.’ Then I called Sidney’s room and I said, ‘Don’t worry, Sidney, we will take care of everything.’ He said, ‘I’m not worried. I’ve got a gun under my pillow.”

“So the first one of them comes through my door, I’m going to blow them away.’ Thank god nothing happened, but this naive director from Canada suddenly understood the extent of American racism. I began to really get just how vicious things were.”

I’ve heard In The Heat of The Night labeled as a do-gooder film, but this seems to minimize not only the movie but Poitier in particular. I find it to be a fundamentally gripping police procedural and this is without thinking about a specific message potentially being crammed down our throats.

This is a testament to the unnerving milieu of the southern town being evoked. It’s the cinematography of Haskell Wexler that feels alert and alive in how it lights and considers the fully-colored spaces. It comes down to this antagonistic rapport of Steiger and Poitier, two very different actors who prove themselves to be exceptional sparring partners as mediated by Norman Jewison.

Surely Poitier had no illusions about what he was portraying. Jewison’s remarks make this very plain. And so he took his image and his part in the movie very seriously. Is it a fantasy about blacks bending over backward to help whites, and then irredeemable racists being redeemed right in front of us? You could say that. But even this seems to oversimplify the picture and sell it short.

This is the movie where Poitier burned with righteous anger and slapped a white man in retaliation, out of his own human pride. Surely isolated moments like these belie any facile interpretation. Because I can’t totally disregard how these scenes make me feel on a fundamental level — how they move me.

How can I have failed to mention Lee Grant, who was finally allowed to leave the Blacklist behind and prove her chops improvising some heart-rendering passages opposite Poitier. They show her ache and his tender concern toward a grieving widow, but also a fellow human being. It’s like some kind of dance they do together.

Or consider how Steiger, still chewing his cud, tells Virgil to “take care.” It’s not much; the exchange is almost sheepish, but it’s trusting we understand the implications. If it’s not an apology, then it’s some form of an olive branch.

This movie doesn’t remedy “the race problem” as it was called in generations past. Its fissures are still supremely evident and ugly. Still, these human exchanges with Poitier at the center, model something deeply healing. To see them on the screen feels validating and also like a balm. Righteous anger has its place, truth has its place, and so does seeing the inherent dignity in others. Rest in peace, Mr. Poitier. You were one for the ages.

4.5/5 Stars