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

Sidney Poitier: For Love of Ivy, Lost Man, Brother John

In honor of the inimitable Sidney Poitier, I spent some time revisiting a bevy of his finest films and also some underrated ones that were new to me. Because he was a prominent archetype for a black movie star, when he was often the only one, it’s fascinating to see the roles he chose at different junctures in his career and how they evolved and played with his well-remembered screen image.

He will be dearly missed, but he left a sterling career behind well worth our consideration. Here are three films you may not have seen before:

For Love of Ivy (1968)

As best as I can describe it, For Love of Ivy, features Poitier and Abbey Lincoln in their version of a Doris Day and Rock Hudson rom-com. It starts out a bit cringy. Lincoln is the maid of the most hopelessly oblivious white family. Mom and Dad are completely blindsided when she says she wants to quit so she can actually have a life with prospects.

Instead of listening to her, the two teen kids ( a hippy Bea Bridges and bodacious Lauri Peters) scheme to set her up with an eligible black man. They know so few, but Tim Austin (Bridges) settles on Jack Parks, a trucking executive because he conveniently has some leverage to get Jack to give Ivy a night on the town. Some awkward matchmaking (and blackmail) ensues to bring our couple together.

Hence how Lincoln and Poitier become an item. But even this dynamic has some unprecedented delights. They eat Japanese food together and visit a club that positively scintillates with ’60s vibes as seen through Hollywood’s eyes. It’s the age-old ploy where the transactional relationship morphs into real love until the truth threatens to ruin the romance. Again, it’s not exactly new hat from Robert Alan Arthur.

Still, with a happy ending and equilibrium restored, Poitier, who helped develop the story, is trusting his audience can read between the lines of all the dorky craziness. For what it is, the movie plays as a great showcase for Poitier and Lincoln. Since there are so very few movies like this with black leads, it feels like a cultural curio. If the mood strikes you, some might even find a great deal more agreeable than Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because it doesn’t take its own social importance too seriously. It’s mostly wacky fun.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lost Man (1969)

The Lost Man features an edgier more militant Poitier because there’s no doubt the world around him had changed since he first got to Hollywood in the ’50s. He’s cool, hidden behind his shades, and observing the very same world with tacit interest. It’s a world ruled by social unrest as his black brothers and sisters picket and protest the racial injustices around them only to be forcibly removed by the authorities.

Robert Alan Arthur’s film shows a brief focused snapshot of the social anxieties of the age. It becomes more convoluted when Jason and some other members of the organization rob a local bank. Their motives are in some ways philanthropic as they hope to use the funds to get some of their friends out of prison and support their families on the outside. But it’s also an overt act of insurrection in their battle against a broken system.

It also puts lives in jeopardy, culminating in a frantic murder as the police hunt for the perpetrators in the botched aftermath. Jason flinches in a crucial moment and must spend the rest of the movie as a fugitive nursing a bullet wound. These all feel like typical consequences in a crime picture circa 1969.

However, one of the most crucial and fascinating relationships in the movie is between Joanna Shimkus, who is a social worker, and Poitier. We don’t get too much context with them, but it’s an onscreen romance that would predate their marriage in real-life. Their rapport complicates the story because she is a white woman who is so invested in this community like few people are, and she effectively brings out a gentler more intimate side of him.

Although it’s not necessarily pushed on us, their interracial romance puts them both in jeopardy because it’s not the way the world normally operates. The ending somehow gave me brief flashbacks to Odd Man Out, but Poitier’s marriage with Shimkus would last well over 40 years! It’s the best denouement this movie could ever hope to have.

3/5 Stars

Brother John (1971)

Brother John feels like one of those characters who is a cinematic creation. He joins James Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd and anyone else who was ever sprinkled with something special that enchants the world around them, whether they’re angelic or extra-terrestrial. But Brother John is a different version for a different generation, and he’s played by none other than Sidney Poitier.

He provides a quiet catharsis for a black audience as a cipher of a man that no one can get a read on. The film itself has a no-frills TV movie aesthetic that somehow still gels with its ambitions.

John comes back to town when he gets news of his sister’s death. The last time he came back was when there was another death in the family. The local doctor (Will Geer), who brought John into the world, is curious about where he comes from and where he goes, but no one takes the old man too seriously.

Still, the police manage to hound him because they’re suspicious of someone they cannot easily intimidate and put in a box. The doctor’s self-promoting son (Bradford Dillman) also needles him in his attempt to gain local prominence. The town’s leaders are looking to quell a factory from unionizing. All of this feels rather mundane in detail. John seems to have nothing to do with any of it.

They remain uncomfortable with him because he’s so inscrutable, well-traveled, knows a myriad of languages, and finds no need to divulge all the shades of his character. He’s contented this way, spending time with family and even calling on a pretty schoolteacher (Beverly Todd) who asks for his company. He won’t play by their preordained script.

There’s one painfully excruciating scene where some cops pay a house call on a black family. The man of the house is left so powerless as he’s subjugated and persecuted in his own home in front of his kids. John is at the table too. Quiet at first. Almost emotionless. Is he just going to sit there or spur himself into action?

In this uncanny moment, he goes down to the basement with one of the officers and proceeds to whoop the tyrant wordlessly with a bevy of skills the backwater lawmen could never dream of. It’s the kind of power exerted over malevolent authority that one could only imagine in your wildest dreams.

As such, Brother John fits in somewhere analogous to the Blaxploitation space but as only Poitier could do it. He wasn’t the same bombastic militant cool dude a generation craved for and received in Shaft or Superfly. He still has his measured exterior, and yet he equally makes quick work of any antagonists: racists, malcontents, white, black, or otherwise. It’s a bit of a boyish fantasy watching a hero vanquish all evildoers quite spectacularly. But, after all, this is what movies are for.

3/5 Stars

The Slender Thread (1965) Connecting Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft

The Slender Thread feels a bit reminiscent of one of those self-contained film noir from a previous decade like 14 Hours or Dial 1119. It’s not a very ambitious scale, still, within its confines, it’s a rather enjoyable film. But, of course, the main attractions are Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft.

Like its predecessors, the film has a bit of a hook — a gimmick that everything else in the movie works through. He’s a university student, named Alan, who volunteers at the local suicide clinic. She’s a checked-out housewife. They never share the screen together, but they are marginally connected through the cord of the phone lines. He’s her last lifeline to the outside world and life. Under such duress in such a vulnerable space, an unmistakable bond is formed between two human beings. It’s also a convenient chance to show off some newfangled technology in Seattle’s crisis hotline, which still seemed to be a fairly new concept in the U.S.

The Slender Thread falters when it hews too close to melodrama thereby discounting a lot of the genuine work Poitier and Bancroft do to build real believable chemistry. I’m thinking of the moment where the housewife’s secret is found out by her husband (Steven Hill), instantly decimating their marriage and sending them into freefall.

His solutions are to show up at church on Sunday morning and then take a fishing trip to get away. She resorts to a state of catatonic fugue. Walking the streets of Seattle, along the seaside, and then ultimately looking to end her life.

And while the film does hearken back to earlier procedurals, it does suggest the movie is a bit of a relic, out of step with the times even as it tries to show off some cutting-edge resources. Ed Asner is part of the police force looking to track the housewife down and Telly Savalas is a respected doctor at the clinic who trusts Poitier with the night shift. Neither has much to do though if you’re familiar with the TV landscape of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s easy enough to divvy out some goodwill toward them.

Aside from a few scenes at a disco tech, the rest of the scenario and the black and white pictorials seem to denote an earlier era. It’s as if Hollywood, as is, is still in the past and has yet to fully comprehend the magnitude of the youth movements and counterculture percolating up through society.

The dancing sequences allow debut director Sydney Pollack to break out of the humdrum and come onto the stage into the emerging decade. Later, the film’s Hyatt finale evokes a bubbly gaiety of the time-honored work convention of the old world as the authorities frantically search for Inga with time running out.

There’s something traditional about all of this connective tissue even if in a year or two the whole industry would be flipped on its head. If you take stock of our primary players, you have Poitier’s ascension with arguably the greatest single year for an actor in film history during 1967. He starred in To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In The Heat of The Night! Anne Bancroft would become fiercely identified with the role of Mrs. Robinson, helping to define the generational malaise whether she liked it or not.

Pollack, for his part, would continue to rise up the ranks with pictures like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They effectively leading to more high profile projects int he ’70s and ’80s. Everyone seems to be on the scusp of something more, something dynamic.

But for what it is, in this moment and time, The Slender Thread is easy to appreciate now that it’s unstuck from that particular cultural juncture. Bancroft shows her capability for encapsulating human frailty and the despondency of the nuclear family with the raspy whisper of her voice.

Poitier is totally invested and makes us care just as dearly, with every syllable, every droplet of sweat on his brow, and every iota of his being engaged with Inga. When he lets out a boyish scream at the end of the picture, it almost feels out of place and yet after everything he does, he rightly deserves it.

The final bit of poeticism is the ending. He has the chance to meet this lady — a woman he went through hell and high water with, forever bonded together — and yet he declines. It’s not an anticlimax but something that feels right. She needed him for a time, and he reciprocated. Now they can return to their lives. Anything else might feel forced and disingenuous. In this manner, they carry the picture. It would feel empty and lacking without them.

3.5/5 Stars

The Defiant Ones (1958): Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier

I can’t have made this up myself, but The Defiant Ones is a testament to the pithy axiom that proximity breeds empathy. Stanley Kramer has very clear intent when he builds the premise of his story out of a white and black prisoner, in the era of Jim Crow, who are chained together for the majority of the movie.

He’s not squeamish about hammering us over the head with the implications. These two men, who escape from a prison truck must work together in order to survive and evade the hordes of police dogs and trackers on their tails (led by Theodore Bikel and Charles McGraw). In fact, the push and pull between Bikel and McGraw in their carriage of justice is a mirror for our primary leads, a persistent reminder that these are four men separated mostly by circumstances.

At times, these circumstances all feel perilously didactic, but Noah (Sidney Poitier) and Joker (Tony Curtis) are the movie’s saving grace as it should be. What’s most phenomenal about Poitier and Curtis’s performances as they take on the harrowing terrain of the movie is just how taxing it seems, and there’s a definite physicality to their plight that fully manifests on the screen.

It’s torrents of rapids or getting trapped in a mud pit together and struggling to fight their ways up the sides These moments overwhelm us and at times feel excruciating. But they bring us into each moment and make them feel real and palpable even when the perfectly orchestrated set-up fails to do so. This is the underlying tension of the entire movie.

Although the two men could care less for one another, if not for self-preservation, there are momentary hints of altruism the farther they go along the trail together. They go through the wringer, nearly getting hung after making a desperate attempt to score some provisions in a local settlement after dark. Claude Akins is one of the warmongers with retribution on his mind. Again, Lon Chaney Jr. plays his counterpoint and a man with a timid reservoir of mercy.

In another prolonged interlude, after having survived, they sneak away to a rural homestead run by a widowed mother (Cara Williams). She at one time becomes their captive and then nursemaid, providing care and sustenance to a wounded Joker while only mildly tolerating Noah. It’s here in a formative moment where their physical chains are finally cast off, only for the bonds of camaraderie to cement between them. The once tenuous partnership has progressed toward something verging on mutual respect.

Even as the woman schemes to run off with her new man while leading Noah astray, Joker for the first time in his life fights against the color line. Because complicity is so easy. But his indignant conscience rumbles inside of him, and he goes after his friend to warn him of the hazards that lie ahead.

One of the most galling sequences occurs earlier in the picture when Noah recounts how he was always taught as a young man to “Be Nice” and then his wife went and taught his son the same thing. Of course, “Be Nice” feels like the coded language of deeply entrenched oppression with blacks having to play up to whites just for the sake of survival if not a seat at the social table.

What it engenders in Noah is deep-suited anger for all his natural life. It’s the kind of gall, Joker can’t quite understand. But when he follows Noah toward the Swamp, he’s showing incremental change can be a powerful thing in itself.

One could argue the ending shows how far the film was willing to go. In other words, The Defiant Ones could only go so far. James Baldwin talks in The Devil Finds Work (If my memory holds) about how Poitier’s character does the valiant thing in the end for the white man (while black audiences screamed at him to get away on the train car).

Obviously, if he did not sacrifice for his newfound friend it would sully the film’s theme while further complicating the resolution. The white world was not quite ready for that ambiguity even as black audiences clamored for greater freedom in life and on the screen.

But if I’ve learned anything about Stanley Kramer, his films very rarely aspire to social realism as much as they are parables under the guise of docudrama. Their purpose is clear and their messages unabashed. Years later we look at the Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and we desire more out of them. Even Sidney Poitier as an actor was often admonished for never quite going far enough when it came to portrayals of his people. There was always something at fault.

Still, when I look at this picture, I see Kramer’s intentions and remember I am so quick to dismiss the past from my enlightened present. Because it’s so easy to do.

However, it feels apt to end with Poitier’s own words about his director:

“Stanley was always a forerunner of terribly good things; He was the type of man who found it essential to put on the line the things that were important to him. People have short memories: in the days he started making films about important social issues, there were powerful Hollywood columnists who could break careers. He knew this, and he said to himself, ‘What the hell’, either I do it or I can’t live with myself.’ For that attitude, we’re all in Stanley Kramer’s debt. He’s an example of the very best of a certain type of filmmaker.”

Kramer’s not one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but perhaps as Poitier suggests he’s the best of a certain type of filmmaker. Surely that is enough.

4/5 Stars

To Sir, With Love (1967): Sidney Poitier As a Mentor

In the 1950s Blackboard Jungle was one of the early pivotal roles for Sidney Poitier where he plays a disaffected youth who is ultimately mentored and encouraged by his teacher: Glenn Ford. Thus, it seems fitting, at the height of his own powers in 1967, Poitier left the student behind and graduated with To Sir With Love leaving an indelible mark on a new generation.

By now it feels like a rather tame vestige of Swinging London. In this world, Poitier feels like a cultural anachronism. Yes, he’s black but there’s also a difference in class. Because he has a level of propriety that feels immediately at odds with the British working-class milieu that goes with grungy streetcorners and gossip on the double-decker in London’s East End.

However, director James Clavell envisions a story where Sidney Poitier fits seamlessly into a British world because he was himself a seasoned man of the world having grown up in Australia, gone to war in Asia, and made a career for himself in Hollywood. It does feel like a unique bit of casting for the time, but it also suggests Clavell’s confidence and understanding of his star’s capabilities.

It’s true Mark Thackeray comes to the school with a background in engineering and a world of experience, but he also has ideals and as he figures out his life, he wants to do something meaningful. His new class has a far different context — hard lives — where teachers are observed more like enemies than mentors. They distrust authority and look destined to revolt against yet another victim, first, sawing off a leg of his desk, attempting to drop projectiles on him, and generally undermining his authority by any means possible.

The score gets weirdly antsy, and it doesn’t do Poitier’s performance any favors when he fully blows his top, if not out of vitriolic rage then certainly righteous indignation. Still, he carries this turning point with aplomb, embodying everything I want to be but can rarely muster with a steely resolve.

Following in the footsteps of Ford, he’s strong. He has a backbone. But he also has a caring spirit, and he’s willing to help these kids when no one else will. He speaks to them not as cloying little children but as adults who are capable of rational thoughts and feelings. They employ a certain level of decorum and yet in response no subjects are considered off-limits.

The museum montage is a bit disruptive, but it feels like a relic of the ’60s overlayed by Lulu’s chart-topping theme. In truth, it was a product of necessity with the needed permits falling through. Still, it’s a sign of something greater. There is a trust that forms between a teacher and his pupils even as their horizons are broadened to things they would have never given a thought to before.

If the movie is about one teacher’s task of not simply subduing a classroom but winning their respect and admiration, then, there several specific test cases that prove prudent to consider.

The most precocious and romantic member of the class, Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson), begins to form a crush on Mark, and he does his best to cultivate her talents while at the same time encouraging her to reconnect with her mother.

Then, there’s Denham (Christian Roberts). He has the bad boy scruffiness of a wannabe Keith Richards or Jagger, and his redemption is another one of Thackeray’s ongoing projects. There’s a standoff with the P.E. Teacher where Sir teaches them a lesson about the unfairness of the world only to suffer for it. Then, of course, we’re reminded of lingering racism in all walks of life. This prevailing sentiment is no different here than across the pond.

One key to Thackeray’s success (apart from being Sidney Poitier) is because he actually shares their world and still rose out of it. Not a great deal of focus is given to it. Still, it’s hard not to see how Thackeray’s background mimics Poitier’s own, originating from humble means to become such a prominent and successful figure with extraordinary elocutionary powers. He’s able to command that classroom (and the screen) with the sound of his voice and the reason that lies behind it. He’s wasn’t born with all these abilities, but he certainly polished them.

I’ll be the first to avow, To Sir, With Love is not exactly auteur cinema, but it goes to show the weight a performance can have. I appreciate what the picture stands for and the way Poitier delivers it provides a genuine weightiness. He instills lessons about apologizing when you know somehow else is in the wrong and extending forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it. In a boxing match he exerts dominance quietly and not as an aggressor. Maybe elements of the movie feel antiquated, but I dearly hope that these do not.

In terms of his performance, the way he carries a briefcase or drops a letter into the red mailbox with a slight affectionate tap, you can’t sum them up, and they don’t mean anything by themselves and still, these are the hallmarks of his performance. And of course, there’s that dance. Somehow this is Poitier personified: he’s imbued with such dignity, and we receive that, but he’s also a man measured by joy as much as rage. Tenderness as much as ferocity.

The final “Lady’s Choice” dance where he takes up his spot on the floor opposite Pamela is one of the film’s sweetest culminations. And when the more traditional trappings evaporate into a raucous number by The Mindbenders, he’s more than game to groove along with it. In fact, he seems to relish the moment just as we do. It’s the film’s crowning gift of mutual affection and respect. I couldn’t help thinking that the life that each one of those teens offers up will be a testament to Sir. Because his investment reaped so much reward.

Yes, To Sir, With Love follows the expected trajectory and still it becomes more about the riches along the way expressed through minor victories and then incremental interactions leading to steady levels of understanding and growth. Do schools actually change like this? Do teachers actually make a difference? Can class rebels be reformed just like so? And does a man likely give up on ambitions for the greater good? I don’t know if I can answer these succinctly (or if I want to answer them), but perhaps that isn’t the point.

To Sir, With Love is an exhortation to never stop trying to be that difference. Is it futile? The world would have us believe it’s so. Am I cynical? Most certainly. I felt a particular kindred spirit to Mr. Weston. And yet movies come along and remind us we should have a go at a heartless world anyway.

Bar that opening scene and a jaunt to the market or a quick moment ironing clothes, we rarely see Poitier outside the four walls of that school. It’s as if he exists to be there as a beacon and a guide for those students. I wanted him and Suzy Kendall to really get together. There’s the semblance of romance and only a warm hint.

But again, I fall back on Poitier’s powerhouse performance, which makes us dream of something better. He bears all our hopes and cares, standing in for any teacher we ever had or wished we had.

I resonated with the movie anew because I spent some time in another country working at a school where many of the students might be classified as “rejects,” and yet on my best days, I felt such a connection to them. I wanted dearly for them to succeed, and Sidney Poitier as he is incarnated up on that screen is a far greater man than I. I can only imagine how he felt.

4/5 Stars

Lilies of the Field (1963): Starring Sidney Poitier

The ample joys of Lilies of the Field come out of it being a kind of modern-day parable. It’s a modest and simple story, shot over 15 days by director Ralph Nelson, with a source novel gaining inspiration from the passage of the Christian scripture:

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

It means different things for our two leads, one who keeps a handy pocket edition for easy travel and the other with a giant tome of a Bible ready to quash everything around it. The image becomes a pertinent one.

Because the film itself concerns itself with an itinerant handyman played by Sidney Poitier. His car is sputtering so he stops by the nearest establishment to get some water for his thirsty engine: it happens to be cared for by a troop of Nuns.

He wants to get out of their sphere of influence as soon as possible. They hardly speak a lick of English. They are Catholic and he is Baptist. And yet he finds himself doing work for them. At first, it’s hardly out of altruism but they are a persistent bunch.

Their leader, Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), has grand visions about what Homer Schmidt (Smith) can do for them thanks to his pair of strong arms. She’s resolute that God will build them a “shapel” and Homer is the readymade conduit.

Of course, he has no such ideas, and he’s interested solely in a buck. He’s ready to do one job for them, get a meal, and then move on with his life. Remember these were the early 60s. Poitier later in the decade would come off stately. He was a doctor, a police officer, a teacher. Here there’s a freedom and playfulness to his movements indicative of a different kind of man.

If there’s any major development to the movie it’s how they slowly teach one another something. Homer comes to understand what it is to slow down, to be present, and to bless other people with your skills. These sisters want nothing more than a place of worship, and he can give them so much. But it’s not just a selfish act of individuality and pride either. It becomes something when others join in to help finish what he began.

However, the Mother is a stern and unyielding lady in her own right. She believes in God’s daily Providence but sometimes at the expense of the human beings around her. She sees them only as tools in God’s plan rather than fellow human beings worthy of thanks and appreciation. Over time she too softens and admires Homer for the monumental thing he has accomplished.

Because ultimately he does bring their dream to fruition. He’s got the dogged resolve to make them their chapel, not because of monetary gain but just because he can. As alluded to already, it begins as a mission of self-aggrandizement.

Both Homer and the Mother can bear a little humbling, and yet in their corner of the world, they see some marvelous things. Homer uses his ingenuity to become the contractor for the project as the local members of the sisters’ parish help finish the building.

Although it’s not a movie of means, it makes up for it with heart and performance. On first look, it seems rather surprising the movie would be such an award boon for Poitier, and yet there’s something warm and appealing about his characterization. Years later there’s still something more to it. There’s a freedom and an energy imbued in him.

He can be exuberant with his shirt off, then badgered and forbearing. They feel like universally human traits that we can understand and relate to. The singing of “Amen” reverberates throughout the movie even if Jester Hairston’s resounding voice sounds nothing like Poitier.

Others like the affable bartender (Stanley Adams) are pragmatic when it comes to issues of faith, the local priest on wheels (Dan Frazer) isn’t overly pious, but he seems a decent human being with genuine aspirations and honest shortcomings. The one other solitary white man (Ralph Nelson himself), a local contractor, seems like he could represent a hedge of racism (Using the word “Boy”), but Poitier fires right back and readily treats him as an equal. They too form a mutual understanding even as he marvels at Homer’s accomplishments. He feels indispensable and Poitier certainly is for the movie.

Except for a rather conspicuous English lesson early on explaining what the colors “white” and “black” mean, from vinyl records to his skin tone, no reference to Poitier’s race is needed. It occurs to me this film, set out in the rural desert, feels like a tale of cultural outsiders, and if not outsiders then at least characters who rarely received Hollywood treatment in the ’60s. We have a black handyman, a parish of European nuns, and then a host of Latino workers.

They couldn’t be more disparate, and yet somehow their ecosystem comes together and blossoms. Whether it’s a shared sense of faith or even a basic human understanding, they gather together and create something beautiful. I can only imagine that this is part of what drew Poitier to such an unassuming picture. Today it still stands modestly alongside some of his best performances.

4/5 Stars

4 Living Legends Part 5

Here is another entry in our ongoing series of Classic Hollywood Stars who are still with us. This is an effort to acknowledge living legends who are well-deserving of our appreciation.

Marsha Hunt (1917-)

Marsha Hunt is one of Classic Hollywood’s amazing centenarians. Before having her career sabotaged by the Hollywood Blacklist in the age of McCarthyism she showed surprising utility in a range of pictures including Pride and Prejudice (1940), Kid Glove Killer (1942), Cry Havoc (1943),  and most memorably in Raw Deal (1948).

Eva Marie Saint (1924-)

Aside from starring in such perennial classics as On The Waterfront (1954) and North by Northwest (1959), she was also married to her husband Jeffrey Hayden for over 60 years, until his passing in 2016.

Angela Lansbury (1925-)

With her starring lead as amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, it’s sometimes easy to forget how early Angela Lansbury started her career in Hollywood. Some of her wide-ranging performances included Gaslight (1944), Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1970), and, of course, Beauty and The Beast (1991).

Sidney Poitier (1927-)

There is so much to be said about Sidney Poitier’s impact on American cinema and representation of African-American masculinity. His catalog is still staggering to this day going beyond high profile successes from ’67 like In The Heat of The Night, To Sir With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. No Way Out (1950), Defiant Ones (1958), Paris Blues (1961), Lillies of The Field, and A Patch of Blue (1965) are all worth searching out, among many others.

Paris Blues (1961)

paris blues 1.png

I’m the first to admit I’m no jazz connoisseur but I dig it. In this age that we now live in of shuffling and song roulette — where the single has surged passed a cohesive album in terms of singular importance — there has been some small amount of education going on for me.

Awareness of some of the classics is starting to set in. There’s recognition of a few of the heavy hitters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and of course Duke Ellington. When we hear even the briefest interludes of “Take The A Train” we will grab a hold of it. Ellington provided the score for Paris Blues including some of his beloved classics and they couldn’t be more fitting.

Because Martin Ritt’s film is hot when it comes to jazz — you can feel it wafting through the air and giving an added layer of sensuality to the already romantic milieu of the Parisian streets. This is a propitious factor married with the fact the picture also takes its shoot right to the streets of Paris, even filling out the cast with a few native supporting players.

Less than a decade before, we had Roman Holiday (1953) and now we have something that might just do the same for France, except with an extra flavoring of brass and a rhythm section. The cast couldn’t be better with two of Ritt’s former students from their Actor’s Studio days, power couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Equally compelling is another legendary leading man in Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll as beautiful and sophisticated as ever. I admire them all.

paris blues 2.png

However, in translating the source material to the silver screen, you could easily say the story lost most of its clout. Harold Flender’s original novel was about two interracial romances between two vacationing Americans and two expatriate jazz musicians working in Paris. However, this was Hollywood in 1961. Although the script teases the original storyline when Ram Bowen (Newman) comes onto Connie Lampson (Carroll) on an inbound train, it was not meant to be — quickly brushed off for more conventional demarcations.

Believing the public was still not ready for such portrayals, the studio got cold feet and smoothed things out by making sure everyone ended up with their “kind.” It’s Lillian Corning (Woodward) who gets starstruck with the trombone player and her friend eventually softens to the handsome saxophonist Eddie Cook (Poitier).

Acknowledging this grievance, the only thing that makes me mildly okay with the change is that the husband and wife duo of Newman and Woodward get paired opposite each other so we see real-life romance partially channeled into the movie. While the four leads look great together and there’s indubitable chemistry, somehow it still feels like something is missing.

paris blues 3.png

Louis Armstrong leading a parade of brass into the jazz club is a shining moment full of uninhibited synergy that fills up the underground space in the most joyous of fashions. As he always does, Wild Man Moore brings down the house. But the real issue is the lack of pizzazz outside these performances.

The story meanders without creating enough interludes ripe with meaning. They’re either cutesy momentary snapshots of lovebirds in Paris or understated pieces of human drama. Not by any means bad but what the picture might have used were some sustained sequences of action in places where it floundered. Most vividly I can recall the Vespa ride through the streets or even the party which is raided by the local police which helped make Roman Holiday a landmark.

There is nothing so memorable here. Instead, some characters leave on the train they arrived on and others stay behind. Musical aspirations and romance are continuously being weighed. Whether we care that deeply about any of it is up for debate.

Worst of all, these issues are only exasperated by the fact that the story no longer has one of Martin Ritt’s finest attributes, a theme of social importance. Because in a Pre-Civil Rights age, Paris Blues could have been a much more moving statement; instead, it’s a middling love story.

Poitier gets one conversation with Carroll where he candidly vocalizes that in Paris he’s a man or he’s a musician. To borrow someone else’s words, “he’s judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character” and even more so by his artistry. It spawns a minor spat but the opportunity to make a statement — a statement without the utterance of words even — was lost before it even began. Perhaps the wasted potential hurts more than anything. Like the musicians at its core, Paris Blues is ultimately a lightweight.

3/5 Stars

No Way Out (1950)

220px-No_Way_Out_(1950_film)_posterI had a preconceived notion that No Way Out might be the kind of social drama that was groundbreaking for its day and by today’s standards looks mundane and quaint. 65 years have passed and this film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz still packs a wallop, believe it or not. We are blessed with the first major role for screen icon Sidney Poitier as young doctor Luther Brooks. His main antagonist is Richard Widmark playing a racist scumbag like he does best, and Linda Darnell also gives a key performance, although her career would soon be on the decline.

The film opens with the young interning doctor — Poitier was only 22 at the time –getting ready for a night shift. His first customers just happen to be Johnny and Ray Biddle, who both got it in the leg after a botched robbery attempt. At first glance, their wounds look superficial, but Luther notices Johnny is disoriented. His diagnosis is a brain tumor so he tries to administer a spinal tap which ends up unsuccessful, partially due to Ray’s constant berating. But Ray has no sympathy; all he knows is that this black doctor has killed his brother. A white doctor could have saved him and all his prejudiced beliefs of blacks are confirmed. At least that’s what he tells himself in his narrow little mind.  Luther even goes to his superior Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), and although he cannot be absolutely certain, he maintains confidence in Luther’s competence.

nowayout1Again that bears little importance to Ray and he will not grant them the opportunity to do an autopsy. After all, his mind is already made up. So the next best thing is to track down Johnny’s former wife Edie (Darnell), who has pulled herself out of the gutter which is Beaver Canal and made a modest living for herself. They want her help, and unbeknownst to them, she does go see Ray. You can see it in how they interact with each other. She was Johnny’s wife once, but there was something between them and Ray won’t let her forget it. That’s undoubtedly why she wanted to get away, but Ray brings out the worst in her. Even as they speak, her racist sentiments come bubbling to the surface. It’s in her veins after all. It doesn’t help that unrest is building in the city. A riot is at hand and the slow build-up leading to the imminent rumble is boiling with tension. Mankiewicz does something important here. He shows both perspectives. I cannot help but think some things have not changed a whole lot over the years. Black vs. white. The same racism. The same belligerence. The same lack of understanding.

nowayout2Of course, after that is all done, that still does not wrap things up with Ray. He still has to settle a score with Luther and he uses Edie against her will. They set a trap at the home of Dr. Wharton for the unsuspecting Luther, and this scene has vital importance to the film, not simply because Biddle and Brooks come face to face once more. This is the scene where Edie must make a choice. Really it’s the universal choice. Stand passively by as injustice is being done or take a stand against it.

So you can make your own diagnosis, but this was not a superficial message movie. It hits fairly hard. I was even surprised by how often Ray Biddle lets the N-word fly. It completely fit Widmark’s characterization, but the production codes allowed it. Supposedly the actor apologized profusely after many of his scenes with Poitier, but his performance is nevertheless potent. It’s certainly convicting and we cannot be too quick to find fault with any of these characters because, truth be told, we all have some apathy and narrow-mindedness stuck inside our skulls. No Way Out is a striking reminder of that.

4/5 Stars

To Sir, With Love (1967)

To-sir-with-loveStarring Sidney Poitier and set in London, the plot follows a former architect from British Guiana who becomes a teacher at a high school in a tough area. Early on Mark Thackeray faces a rebellious group of teenagers who dislike education and challenge authority whenever possible. He resolves to keep his temper and yet one day their actions are too vulgar for him and he loses it.

After that he develops a new strategy to treat them as adults and he teaches them practical skills they will need in the real world. He changes how they act and takes them on field trips so that even the most combative one Denham is won over. However, after an incident during gym class which he must diffuse, Thackeray loses the respect of much of the class. His mood changes slightly after receiving another job offer.

Later on in the gym class he is supervising he boxes with Denham. In the ensuing moments he wins Denham and then everyone else over once more. With the year finally over, Thackeray is invited to the year end dance where he is given a gift and serenaded with song (To Sir, With Love by Lulu)! Too choked up to speak he retreats to his office. After a chance encounter he resolves to continue teaching and rips up the other offer.

Besides a good theme in “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney Potier gives a great performance that makes this film both powerful and touching. If you want a small look into Swinging London this is one to watch. Although I am tempted to find fault in this film I find myself focusing on the positives and I will leave it at that.

4/5 Stars