In the Heat of the Night (1967, Norman Jewison)

In the perfect world we of course don’t occupy, there’s a special kind of universal disdain reserved for the mystery film in which the culprit is, invariably and clearly, the first slightly offbeat person we meet who isn’t played by a name actor. Such is the deeply familiar and deeply uninteresting core of In the Heat of the Night, Norman Jewison’s crime drama known for its Ray Charles theme music and then-bold reportage of racism in the Deep South. In contrast to the television series that took its name twenty years later, a rather stonefaced affair, the film is profoundly unserious, its tone wavering between comic reductionism of its intense backdrop and the usual half-hearted comraderie familiar now to us from the buddy-cop genre. In no way does its cartoonish take on complex matters do it any favors as a document of social injustice. Its sole artistic coup is its strange and innovative score by Quincy Jones, with oddball instruments, an unusual rock texture, and at least one bizarrely wonderful song called “Foul Owl on the Prowl,” conjured up when a Sam the Sham record couldn’t be licensed.

But it also scores like few other police procedurals on one front — atmosphere — that has proven more than enough to render it one of the most influential American films of the ’60s. You can actually sense the heat of the title, the sweltering summer nights it captures, the eerie stillness of the Mississippi backroads and street corners after dusk has fallen. Jewison nails this, quite impressively given that he shot all but one scene in Illinois, and then is required to tell a story too silly and simplistic to really harness that tension. You can argue that this is just typical MacGuffin structure, but I’m not sure you should film a mystery if you don’t intend anyone to care even a little about its solution. On the other hand, of course, decades of liberal borrowings from the film have muted it somewhat, and the Oscars gave it a pedestal it can’t really live down; were we to see the film in the middle of the night on pay TV with no prior awareness of it, it’d undoubtedly play far more strongly.

Heat remains entertaining and engrossing in a certain trashy manner, thanks to its use of now-tired tropes: the conscientious detective, the surly elder statesmen, the armies of good ol’ boys. If it’s rather antiquated in its feeble combination of racial drama and whodunit, replete with Sidney Poitier’s homicide expert being introduced through a false arrest, it’s handy to remember how unusual it was in 1967 to find a film that didn’t skirt matters of racial prejudice, moreover one that presented it in the context of a story that genuinely meant to absorb foremost as pop entertainment. As acidic and delightful as Poitier’s performance is, there’s a familiar feeling of wastefulness to seeing him throw so much energy on a film that, I have little doubt, will carry even less appeal than now in a few decades’ time.

Poitier is a great actor, and yet I can’t name a single truly great film I’ve seen him in. Blackboard Jungle and No Way Out come closest, but a central issue in both, and in this film and many of his most famous, is that he is essentially playing an updated version of the put-upon, overly tolerant black man trying to make it in a world vastly biased against him. His race is an issue in nearly all of his movies; this would be fine if isolated, but looking over them now, one senses little beyond all-consuming sadness. I’ve seldom seen him given a chance to act as a person rather than a black man reacting against hatred. Of course these films are portraits of a bygone time with varying degrees of accuracy (from the way they play today I assume No Way Out is perhaps the most realistic, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner easily the most ludicrous), but if Hollywood had been so concerned about downtrodden minorities, couldn’t they have given the premier African-American performer of his time something else to work with?

It’s insulting to have an obviously skilled and complex thespian reduced to what seems like an career-length apology for his color, and it’s the resulting manipulations make for a tiresome series of dramatic gaffes and manipulations. Because Sidney Poitier is black, and because his most widely remembered films are ostensibly treatises against racism, his characters are required to be more or less flawless, which in a very real sense is as racist as casting him as a Stepin Fetchit clone. And in his fights against the acid-tongued or marble-mouthed racists, sometimes wielding weapons (in No Way Out he’s attacked with boards from a junkyard; in this film he’s attacked with pipes lying around an abandoned warehouse), you start to get this sense that “uncompromising depiction of intolerance” has slipped over into “sadistic voyeurism,” as it would later with Uma Thurman’s S&M porn flick role in Kill Bill and, some argue, with the descent into degradation of Lars von Trier’s heroines. Think of it as the “dragged through the mud” phenomenon, coupled with what feels like a notion of racism always as societal comical absurdity instead of a weighty threat; in 1967, of course, it was both.

Norman Jewison’s treatment of both subject matter and script is typical of the era. As always, it’s all too easy for comfortable, self-satisfied “liberal” cinema to react smugly to strife of the times; films like this are essentially fantasies because they are so prepared to pull the audience apart from responsibility. The racists of the film are flat, subhuman monsters, a valid enough caricature but also a dramatic shortcoming and one that gives the do-gooder audience too easy a way out: the film lets them point and laugh without considering any of the deeper roots or implications of the hatred driving the backgroud characters, and to some extent Rod Steiger’s Chief Gillespie. The film becomes a casting of absolute good Poitier against a mumbling monolith of evil, not a curious humanity gone awry.

Technically, the movie’s a mixed bag. Haskell Wexler’s photography is strong, but the Oscar-winning editing chops of Hal Ashby wear poorly. The rhythm is frequently off between master shots and close-ups, there are plenty of instances of unjustified cutting and sudden jumps, and continuity is haphazard at best — adding to the scrappy “on the fly” feeling but awkwardly cut enough that it can remove the audience from the proceedings. Ashby’s bewildering Oscar win is only eclipsed by Rod Steiger’s award for doing absolutely nothing with a nearly flat character, whose major act in the film is to change from a sneering racist to a slightly less racist but still vaguely nasty human. It’s not that Steiger is bad, just that he has nothing to do, and Poitier runs circles around him. Steiger stands and chews gum and watches along with us.

There are inspired moments of strong characterization here, like the relaxed late-night conversation between the two leads in Steiger’s apartment, but they’re consistently undercut by a tired reprise of the film’s weak social-comment thread. A scene in a greenhouse full of orchids with a particularly violent Klansman is fascinating but leaves a thread dangling that’s then never picked up, or even satisfactorily explained. The solution to the “mystery” isn’t remotely interesting because we never care about any of the “suspects.” I can say that the film is innovative in one sense; if you watch the early crime-scene portion, after the lengthy Touch of Evil ripoff, you can certainly see how it gave birth to the way modern cop and forensics-drama shows are shot. But I personally would consider that a somewhat undistinguished, dubious contribution to film art. At best.

[Updated and modified version of a review I wrote in 2007.]

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