81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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In the Heat of the Night

September 28th, 2009 · No Comments · 1967, Adaptation, Color, Drama, In the Heat of the Night, Mid-Point, Norman Jewison, Plot Point I, Plot Point II, Quentin Dean, Quincy Jones, Racism, Rod Steiger, Screenplay Structure, Sidney Poitier, United Artists

In the Heat of the Night I don’t like “message” movies, ones that were seemingly created to teach me a lesson or re-align my thinking to be more in line with whatever the latest cause is in Hollywood.

I don’t need Hollywood to teach me right from wrong. I can think for myself.

So I bristled when I watched the behind-the-scenes commentary for In the Heat of the Night and heard John Singleton, filmmaker, say: “An African-American who works in Hollywood, I always would give Norman Jewison a whole lot of respect because we always say amongst ourselves that whenever a white director takes a film on a black subject nine times out of 10 he’s going to ruin it. There’s no cultural identification to what exactly that story is. Norman, as far as I’m concerned, he’s three for three. He did Hurricane. He did Solider Story. And he did In the Heat of the Night.”

I’m not sure Mr. Singleton is aware that his comment, at face value, could be interpreted as racist. Can you imagine if a white filmmaker said, “…we always say amongst ourselves that whenever a black director takes a film on a white subject nine times out of 10 he’s going to ruin it”? The crap storm would be huge.

Besides, the comment is absurd. It’s like saying you can’t direct a movie about Jedi Knights unless you’re a Jedi Knight. Or a movie about Hobbits unless you’re a Hobbit. Or a movie about the Titanic unless you were actually on the Titanic. Hollywood would have been a very barren place if directors could only make movies based on what they actually know.

Missing in all of the self-righteous commentary about In the Heat of the Night – a movie set against the backdrop of growing black-and-white tensions during the 1960s – is an understanding that Sydney Poitier’s character, Virgil Tibbs, is just as prejudiced as the small-town southern hicks. Only in a different way. But it is revealed at least three times in the movie. Once, at the movie’s Mid Point. The scene is with Virgil and Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Virgil waits at the train station. He’s eager to leave Sparta, Mississippi. Gillespie wants him to stay. Virgil says no. Gillespie rises to stand eye to eye with Virgil.

Gillespie: Now you listen to me. Just once in my life I’m going to own my temper. I’m telling you that you’re going to stay here. You’re going to stay here if I have to go inside and call your chief of police and have him remind you of what he told you to do. But I don’t think I have to do that, you see? No, because you’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just going to stay here and show us all. You got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You want to know something, Virgil? I don’t think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.

Virgil looks at the chief, saying nothing. Then he picks up his suitcase and leaves the platform, following him.

It’s a powerful scene.

Another indication that Virgil has his own prejudices is revealed after the famous “slap scene,” when Virgil and the chief argue outside Endicott’s mansion:

Gillespie: You’d better damn well clear out. I mean fast!
Virgil: What about that big speech you gave me this morning?
Gillespie: I didn’t know you were going to slap any white man, least of all Endicott!
Virgil: All right. Give me another day. Two days. I’m close. I can pull that fat cat down. I can bring him right off this hill.
Gillespie: Ooh, boy. Man, you’re just like the rest of us, ain’t ya?

Finally, there’s a scene just after Plot Point II in which Virgil and Gillespie stand in an open field that’s the site of the factory the dead man came to town to build:

Virgil: If Delores Purdy hadn’t come into your office I never would have seen the truth. I was hung up trying to get Endicott for personal reasons.

You see? Virgil Tibbs was trying to get Endicott, the racist cotton-plantation owner. Why? Because Endicott was a racist cotton-plantation owner.

Dr. Imani Perry, Princeton University Center for African-American Studies says of In the Heat of the Night, “It really allows, I think, everyone to connect with one of the characters on a deep emotional level. And that’s exactly what good film as social commentary can do.”

I don’t like “films as social commentary.” Films that impact society as a by-product of their quality and message are great. But films that set out to impact society, regardless of their quality, are merely propaganda. Michael Moore’s films are a prime example. They’re 100% propaganda, created for the sole purpose of stirring up emotions and pushing Moore’s leftist worldview down our throats. I have absolutely no respect for Michael Moore. He’s a hack.

So all of those chest-beating statements (“We were making a serious statement about civil rights,” says cinematographer Haskell Wexler) made me dislike the movie from the get-go. Before I even pushed “Play.” Yes, I’m aware that’s prejudice. This time, on my part.

And that’s unfortunate. Because the movie is actually quite good, with a riveting (and, in fact, Oscar-winning) performance turned in my Rod Steiger. The movie is involving, interesting, well acted, and fast-paced – “a serious statement about civil rights” notwithstanding. The movie’s point is made because it’s a quality film.

THE PLOT
Virgil Tibbs is a Philadelphia Homicide detective home to see his mother in the rural south. He is arrested on general principles when a rich white man is found dead, and Tibbs’ being Black is enough reason. When his identity is established, his boss offers his services to the small town sheriff who has little experience with murder investigations. As the two policemen learn how to work together, they begin to make progress on the crime. (Written by John Vogel for IMDB.)

THE CAST
Sidney Poitier (1927- )……………………………….Virgil Tibbs
Rod Steiger (1925-2002)……………………………Gillespie
Warren Oates (1928-1982)…………………………Sam Wood
Lee Grant (1927- )…………………………………….Mrs. Colbert
Larry Gates (1915-1996)……………………………Endicott
James Patterson (1932-1972)……………………..Mr. Purdy
William Schallert (1922)……………………………..Mayor Schubert
Beah Richards (1920-2000)………………………..Mama Caleba
Peter Whitney (1916-1972)………………………..Courtney
Kermit Murdock (1908-1981)……………………..Henderson
Larry D. Mann (1922- )………………………………Watkins
Matt Clark (1936- )……………………………………Packy
Arthur Malet (1927- )………………………………..Ulam
Fred Stewart (1906-1970)………………………….Dr. Stuart
Quentin Dean (?-?)……………………………………Delores

In the Heat of the Night was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won five: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Rod Steiger), Best Film Editing, Best Picture (Walter Mirisch) Best Sound, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Stirling Silliphant, 1918-1996).

The screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant, was an interesting man. I strongly encourage you to visit his bio on IMDB. Detroit-born Stirling wrote the screenplay for The Towering Inferno (1974) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), as well as a whole bunch of TV episodes from Rawhide to Route 66 to Perry Mason.

Stirling was an “advertising executive for Disney and Twentieth Century Fox before turning to screenwriting in the 1950s. Prolific writer who also published more than 50 books,” according to his bio. In addition, he worked on two projects near and dear to my heart: the script for a 1983 TV movie called Travis McGee, one of the greatest mystery/thriller characters ever created. Travis McGee appears in 21 novels written by John D. MacDonald.

Another cool project that Stirling worked on was “…a meticulous treatment for Ayn Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ which was never developed into a screenplay or produced.” Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” is an astounding 1200+ page, pro-capitalism book that, although published in 1957, eerily describes the events of contemporary America.

The young gal (Quentin Dean) who played Delores Purdy seems to have dropped out of sight. No one knows what happened to her after appearing in a few TV episodes in the 1960s (her last role was in the series Lancer in 1969; no other information is available). Given everyone’s interest in her, I’d love to find her and interview her. I’m sure many, many film buffs would love to know what became of her.

The script for In the Heat of the Night adheres to standard Three-Act screenplay structure, almost to the minute. Here, I’ll show you.

In the Heat of the Night is 110 minutes long. The Inciting Incident should occur in the first 5-15 minutes. Plot Point I should occur 25-30 minutes into the film. Mid Point should occur at 50-60 minutes in. And Plot Point II should be found at the 80-90 minute mark.

Guess what? It all lines up.

Inciting Incident: Seven minutes into the film, Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) finds a dead body lying on the sidewalk.

Plot Point I: Twenty-five minutes into the film, a suspect is chased through the woods. He is caught by the 30-minute mark.

Mid Point: Fifty minutes into the movie, Virgil Tibbs waits at the train station. He wants to leave. Chief Gillespie walks into the frame and stands near Virgil. “What would you say if I asked you to stay for a while?” he asks Virgil. At approximately 53 minutes into the movie, Virgil decides to stay and follows the chief back to his car.

Plot Point II: At about 82 minutes into the film, Officer Sam Wood is been arrested as the chief suspect in the murder. However, just as Deputy Courtney asks Virgil, “Tibbs? Do you think Sam did it?” a guy hauls a young girl into the police station and demands to see the chief. The girl claims Officer Wood got her pregnant. The time is 84 minutes and 50 seconds into the film. Right on schedule.

In the Heat of the Night is truly a good film. It would have been a better film without all the heavy-handed commentary about social injustice and prejudice because, as the film clearly reveals to those who care to see it, prejudice cuts both ways. The healing so many claim to seek won’t happen until that fact is acknowledged.

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