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In the Heat of the Night: Best Picture, 1967

intheheatofthenightposter.jpgThe 40th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Bob Hope, and what an amazing year for movies 1967 was. 1966 and ’67 saw the final collapse of the Production Code, but the new MPAA ratings system would not be in place until November of 1968. With a freedom they hadn’t experienced in over three decades, filmmakers produced some of the greatest American films ever. Nominees for Best Picture were: Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night and . . . Dr. Dolittle. Okay, so we can’t all be brilliant and edgy.

In the Heat of the Night was nominated for 7 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Best Sound and Best Sound Effects. It was Norman Jewison’s second directing nomination of five (the next would be for Fiddler on the Roof a few years later), but he never won the award. Best Director went to Mike Nichols for The Graduate. Interestingly, this was Nichols’ second of five directing nominations, and the only one he won. Meanwhile, Best Sound Effects went to The Dirty Dozen. In the Heat of the Night won all five of the remaining awards.

The movie takes place in tiny Sparta, a fictional Mississippi town on the Arkansas border. A wealthy investor has just turned up murdered in a downtown street, and the pressure is on Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), the local police chief, to nose up a conviction. As luck would have it, Philadelphia cop Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, traveling back home by train after visiting his mother. The local Barney Fife, officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates), picks the black man up as an automatic suspect. Amidst resolving the mix-up, Gillespie discovers that Tibbs is a homicide detective, and reluctantly asks him to take a look at the body.

The plot become complex very rapidly at this point, as personal and local politics mix and new characters float in and out of the story. Gillespie struggles between his knee-jerk prejudice and his genuine need for help. Tibbs must choose between his disgust for these people and his desire to see justice done. And meanwhile, a lynch mob is slowly building force . . . if Tibbs can’t solve the murder soon, he won’t live to return to Philadelphia.

Poitier is cool, no matter the role. This is undoubtedly one of his coolest and most memorable performances. The moment when he finally loses his temper and grinds out an enraged “They call me ‘Mr. Tibbs.’” is unforgettable. It gave me chills. He has gravitas and an incredible screen presence. 1967 was a big year for him: In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love, three of his best-known movies, were all released. Two of them were nominated for Best Picture (cf. Yul Brynner in 1956).

Poitier himself, however, was completely ignored by the acting nominations (which he certainly deserved), both of which went to old white men (Rod Steiger and Spencer Tracy, who was nominated posthumously). This is especially ironic considering that both of those movies broke new ground in examining racial prejudice (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner featured the first on-screen interracial kiss, I’m told). It should be noted, however, that Poitier had already won an Oscar three years before for Lilies of the Field.

In any case, In the Heat of the Night is top-notch; suspenseful, smart, and very stylish. The plot is intricate, but easy to follow, and makes masterful use of red herrings and McGuffins. I say “McGuffins” because the investigation doubles back on itself several times, and the obvious solutions to the mystery are followed through and abandoned simply as a means of keeping Tibbs in town (although I enjoyed the twists and turns in their own right). But Steiger and Poitier glare and spar and (of course) slowly develop a grudging mutual respect and it’s all very entertaining to watch.

I should also mention the music, at least briefly. I think it is largely very good: hip period stuff that does a lot to enhance the atmosphere. But I’m not too sure about the title song that pops up at the beginning and end of the film. I like the song, but it is intrusive and distracting, particularly at the end. I don’t approve of having the title belted out so insistently . . . I know what I’m watching.

I have yet to see Bonnie and Clyde, but I’ve seen the other four Best Picture nominees. I wouldn’t have given the award to Dr. Dolittle, but beyond that I’m not certain. In the Heat of the Night is an excellent, fun movie, but I’d say it has the least staying power of the remaining three choices. I think, in the end, I’d have chosen The Graduate, which remains one of my favorite films.

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~ by Jared on June 4, 2007.

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