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

Jubal (1956)

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There’s no doubt about it. Jubal boasts absolutely gorgeous imagery and how can you miss with a backdrop as majestic as the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Its looming grandeur is evident in just about every single exterior shot — a continuous hallmark of classical frontier visions.

This element alone will quickly cause many western aficionados to recall one of the finest in the genre, George Stevens’ Shane (1953), which was also shot in the same area and consequently, exhibits a broadly similar plotline. However, that can be attributed to the fact westerns often busy themselves with tales of lone drifters riding toward new destinations in an effort to escape some unnamed force in their past. Jubal (Glenn Ford) is molded out of the same archetype.

Except Jubal winds up at the cattle ranch of the welcoming Sherp Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), who finds the other man frostbitten and proceeds to give him shelter and a cup of coffee. That’s just Sherp’s way, even though he’s a fairly prosperous man with a pretty wife (Valerie French), he’s instantly likable and beloved by everyone, in spite of his good-natured prattling.

The figure instantly positioned as an antagonist is Pinky (Rod Steiger) who right off the bat accuses the other man of smelling of sheep. He holds sheepherders in disdain but soon feels like his position on the ranch is under threat. Because despite being a newcomer, Jubal instantly makes an impression as a reserved but nevertheless trustworthy and hardworking ranch hand.

He gains the favor of Sherp even as he’s bent on moving on. That’s his nature. Delmer Daves serves as both screenwriter and director, adapting a story bearing the strains of Shakespeare’s Othello but again, like comparison’s with Shane, it’s true most stories have narratives scouring similar cisterns for inspiration. What matters most is what they offer us that is unique.

Ultimately, Jubal does decide to stay on a spell and the consequences are not unfelt. He conceals a buried hurt that supplies our character conflict. In some regards, as best as I can describe it, he fits too neatly into a box as it all comes gushing out when talking with a pretty ingenue played by Felicia Farr. As he discloses his deep-seated hurt, Jube readily acknowledges he’s never shared this boyhood trauma with anyone else. There’s something about her genial innocence setting him instantly at ease.

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Her parents are part of an unnamed religious caravan searching for the Promised Land and Jubal is instrumental in allowing them to stay on the ranch, even as Pinky fights for them to move along. He’s continually looking to belittle and lessen Jubal in Horgan’s eyes by any means possible.

Meanwhile, the seductive onslaughts turned toward Jubal, coupled with slanderous verbal assaults from a jealous rival, look to take the man down one way or another. Yet he will do nothing to compromise himself. He stands firm with integrity but like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, you know he will be blamed for something he had no hand in.

The whole film is really an exhibition in differing acting styles rubbing up against each other. Rod Steiger, of course, immersed himself in “The Method,” famously playing alongside Brando in On The Waterfront (1954). In Jubal, you can very easily see the early shades of Officer Gillespie, though Pinky is arguably worse as an animalistic brute with a bur in his backside.

You can also easily see how his animosity could have spilled over into everything and soured his working relationship with Ford and Borgnine, who maintain a more naturalistic even intuitive style. Regardless, each man feels well-suited to their respective parts.

The same can be said of John Dierkes as well and Noah Beery Jr., as genial as ever, playing on the fiddle as another ranch hand. Charles Bronson at first seems a curious even suspicious character although his purpose becomes evident as he becomes the go-between to vouch for others, knowing both the worlds of the religious pilgrims and the ranchers. Jack Elam is features though he doesn’t have much to do while Victoria French’s role relies heavily on her being a tantalizing seductress, constantly coaxing Jubal into some sort of romantic tryst.

The film is a testament to the intrigue found in continuous antipathy and an almost fatalistic sense of powerlessness in the face of inevitable doom. In other words, no matter how hard he tries, it seems like Jube will never be able to win.

My main qualm, however, is in the ending. I’m used to abrupt endings but the film seems to have delegated its time in the wrong ways. The beauty of the film thus far was its smoldering potential threat which led to some invariably dark turns. By the final juncture, we essentially know what will happen but we relish them coming to fruition in a cathartically cinematic fashion.

While Jubal gets the girl and clears his name, he only gets a very brief showdown with the continual thorn in his side, Pinky, before the doctor comes out of the shed to pronounce death with the other man being guilty of certain indiscretions.

So in very basic terms what could have been a more thrilling culmination is all but cut short. Vindication is made easy. Otherwise, the picture boils to the end thanks to the maddening rage of Steiger, which is capable of twisting every minor detail into more ammunition to try and sway the mob and bury another man in his premature grave.

The necessity is that Ford is and remains throughout the film a white knight, never has a lapse of character, and even goes after the good girl. It’s the circumstances that are constantly against him. It makes for a tumultuous and repeatedly helpless state of being for the entirety of the film. The blip before “The End” loses a bit of this tension but up to that point, Jubal makes good as a friction-filled western drama.

4/5 Stars

Review: On The Waterfront (1954)

8542a-on_the_waterfront_poster“They always said I was a bum, well I ain’t a bum Edie.” That is what washed up prizefighter Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) must try and prove to himself and others for the entirety of this crime-drama. On the Waterfront is ultimately his story of conscience and redemption that we watch unfold. It’s not pretty, but you’ll soon see for yourself.

Living on the waterfront is a tough existence. The mob decides who works and who won’t. Longshoremen are expected to be D & D (Deaf and Dumb) or else they have something coming. That’s how big shot Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his boys can run the entire area. They utilize fear and money to keep the working masses at bay. No matter what police or the crime commission might try to do, they have no hold on the waterfront. It’s a jungle out there and if you want to survive you look out for number one, don’t ask questions, and live another day.That is Terry Malloy’s philosophy and it suits him just fine. His brother Charley is Friendly’sright-handd man and he’s made a good life for himself thanks to his brains. Terry is more brawn than brain, and he does what his brother says. One night he blows the horn on a young man named Joey because he called out Johnny Friendly. That same evening Joey is knocked off, literally. Terry tries to justify it. He only thought they were going to “lean on him” a bit. With that incident begins Terry’s inner battle.

The moral compass of the film is supplied by two people. Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) returns to her town from school with her beloved brother Joey now dead. She cannot understand why no one else will speak out about it or do anything to carry his cause. It is ultimately Father Barry (Karl Malden) who does just that realizing that his parish is the waterfront. He must fight against the injustice of the mob and hope others will join him. It’s a tall order. At the first meeting he holds in the church, a window gets busted, and thugs wait outside for people to beat up on. Terry was sent by Johnny to check it out and it is there that he meets Edie. He is immediately taken by her, and she warms to him. She sees him differently than the others without knowing what role he had in her brother’s death. The Father and Edie encourage Terry to testify at the crime commission after another man is killed in an “accident.”

Friendly can’t have a canary and its Charley’s job to straighten out his brother. That’s when they take their fateful car ride. Terry spill his guts (I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.) and Charley responds the only way he knows how. He saves his little brother who he has always looked out for and pays the price.

Now Terry has his reason to testify and soon enough he goes before the crime commission to call out John Friendly. He has broken the waterfront code and gone canary. All respect for him is gone and Friendly wants his hide, but Edie is overjoyed in him. Finally, Terry has left the shackles on the waterfront and freed his conscience. He confronts the big man himself and is beaten to a pulp. But as Father Barry says he may have lost the battle, but he won the war.

Before getting to Brando, I must acknowledge the other players for their stellar performances. Eva Marie Saint is just that, a saint, and she gives a heartfelt performance as Edie. It is her love and care that leads Terry to turn himself around because she sees a little piece of humanity left in him. Karl Malden has perhaps one of his finest roles as the Father who represents a man of the faith remarkably. He is no joke, and he does not cave to hypocrisy. His waterfront sermon is one of the most powerful moments:

“You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? It’s the love of a lousy buck. It’s making the love of the lousy buck – the cushy job – more important than the love of man! It’s forgettin’ that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ!”

However, Rod Steiger’s poignant scene with Brando in the car is similarly extraordinary, because he realizes where he has failed. He does not need the words. He just stays silent, and we see it on his face. He is the one who pays for the mistakes, though, and he is far from a bum. Then, of course, there is Marlon Brando himself. He is often hailed one of the greatest actors of all time, but he usually played corrupt undesirables or rebels. Terry Malloy is perhaps his best role, and he is the good guy for once. He must struggle to do what is right by him, and he must struggle to prove himself to others. Brando plays him with some much genuineness, heart, and vulnerability at times. He is far more than the brusque meat head we take him for initially.

Elia Kazan was a champion of hard- edged dramas especially in the 1950s and he never succeeded more so than with this film. The black and white cinematography with perpetual fog drifting in fits the dire mood nicely and Leonard Bernstein’s score further compliments the drama. This is a fine example of Classic Hollywood cinema which was praised back then and lauded now. Our fake blood may have gotten better, but otherwise, it’s hard to top this film.

5/5 Stars

The Pawnbroker (1964)

Starring Rod Steiger with support from Jaime Sanchez and direction by Sidney Lumet, the film chronicles the present life of a Holocaust survivor turned pawnbroker. Sol Nazerman is a man who keeps to himself and he is callous to everyone who enters the doors of his shop. Under the surface, it is evident that the reason for his demeanor are his constant tormenting memories of the death camp as well as the loved ones he lost. In present day Haarlem Sol feels fear for the first time in a long while when he learns his shop is being used as a front for illegal activities. The energetic Ortiz (Sanchez) who eventually got fed up with his boss, shows his loyalty in the end. Despite his specters, Sol seemingly feels humanity after such a long time of being cut off from the world. Steiger gives a stunning performance and although sometimes it seems confused, I think this is an important film to see.

4/5 Stars

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

19363-in_the_heat_of_the_night_filmWith an interesting conflict between two policemen, one white and one black, In the Heat of the Night is a thrilling crime film. Rod Steiger delivers a wonderful performance as the common place and prejudiced officer who heads a southern police force. Things do no start off well when a policeman from Philadelphia, Mr. Tibbs (Poitier) is accused of murder simply because of his race. Only afterwards do they learn he is a highly respected detective. Because they need help, they reluctantly ask for his assistance. Tibbs must learn how to deal with the prejudice while Gillespie (Steiger) must curb his own racism. Over the course of the film, the two men face opposition but they stick with it to see the case through. When the crime is finally solved, Tibbs is about to leave and Gillespie with a new-found respect tells him to come back sometime. In an age where racism was still a tremendous problem, this film combated the issue and created something very special in the process.

5/5 Stars

On the Waterfront (1954)

In his first great crime film Marlon Brando teamed with Elia Kazan and played a very different sort of character. It tells a moving story of a man who chooses to change in very difficult circumstances and to do what is ultimately right. This film has great characters and memorable dialogue that show the complexity of the human race. It proved that Brando could play a true hero and not only a villain.

*May Contain Spoilers
In this film starring a wonderful cast including Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Eva Marie Sainte, a washed up prizefighter redeems himself. The waterfront is a tough area controlled by a gang led by Cobb. Brando’s Terry Malloy gives them information about a young man, because his brother (Steiger) is second in command. Only afterwards does he find out they knocked the man off and now Malloy must deal with his conscience. He slowly falls for the dead boy’s sister and must tell her the truth. With the help of Sainte and a Father played by Malden, Malloy testifies to put away Cobb for good. However his brother Steiger pays the ultimate price after one of the most poignant scenes in movie history. Kazan behind the camera does a good job at allowing his actors to flourish. This film is definitely a great one telling a classic story of redemption.

5/5 Stars