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In The Heat Of The Night

24 May

In The Heat Of The Night – Directed by Norman Jewison. Police Procedural. A Negro detective from the North is waylaid in a Southern town to solve a murder. 109 minutes Color 1967.

* * * *

The police procedural aspects of this film fall flat as the plot brings on a bunch of over-acting tertiary players as thugs, the town tart, and an impossible culprit, thus ending it in inconsequential confusion. It should have stuck to its genre and completed its obligations honorably. It would have better served the inner shift in the principals, played by Rod Steiger and Sydney Poitier, both of whom grow up into humility because of one another.  Still one follows along. The secondary actors are superb: Lee Grant (as usual, always mistakenly wearing a wig that looks like a wig), William Schallert remarkable as the mayor, Warren Oates as a dumb Kopf cop, Larry Gates as he who gets slapped, and Beah Richards, trim and crafty as the abortionist/conjure woman. Steiger won an Oscar. So did the film. So did its sound. So did Hal Ashby who edited it. Sterling Silliphant, who won the Oscar for screenwriting, wrote it in a series of hills and dales which are disappointingly similar to one another. But along the way he enters some wonderful byways, such as the scene in Steiger’s house where Poitier and Steiger share confidences. Haskell Wexler also won an Oscar for filming it, and he has a great many interesting things to impart in the Extra Features. Steiger was the most self-indulgent actor to ever draw breath, and he draws it, as usual, far too often in scenes of competitive rage, which never work because they are technical and unmotivated. It is not those scenes for which he won the Oscar, but for scenes of doubt, dismay, embarrassment. It’s lovely to see him in these –­ to see what sort of an actor he could be. Poitier is not a great actor. He is very beautiful, of course, which counts for a great deal. But what he actually does is something else. What he does is produce A Presence, which remains the same from film to film, a star turn, if you will. He does so by establishing a few eternal constants within him. They consist, first, of his eyes, which are always seeking, no matter what the scene may be. And he does so also by always remaining in reserve, which gives him a dignity that plays off against his seeking eyes in a combination that produces a tension in him and, for us, a waiting to see who will or will not take offense at him. This confines him somewhat vocally, and we are never in the presence of one who is vulnerable, which is all right, but it does limit his chances to actually act. Thank God for him, though. He remains the Jackie Robinson of movies, exactly the right person for the job, for he can hold the screen like nobody’s business. The blatant extremes of racial prejudice here now look goofy; they were probably no help then, either. Only in Larry Gates’ orchid scene do you see a subtle alternative. Otherwise the racial conflicts are garish. The film, however, operates on another level, and still works very well as two men coming to maturity in one another’s natures, both of them smart, ruthless, and alone.

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