Sunday, 17 June 2012

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Dir. Norman Jewison
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant 

In a small Southern town a murder is committed. The quest to find the killer brings two very different police officers into a temporary and uneasy alliance. And it is this relationship that defines In the Heat of the Night 

Following the discovery of the murder Chief of Police Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger, who won the Academy Award for his performance as the prickly police chief) orders a search be carried out for hitch-hikers. One of his officers finds a black stranger at the railroad station and takes him in. This man is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), and it turns out that he too is a policeman from Philadelphia – a homicide expert no less. Tibbs is urbane and well-dressed, clever and educated, Northern, black, and considerably better paid than Gillespie. He also has a touch of arrogance about him. In short, he is everything that Gillespie is not. He seems almost tailor-made to antagonise the swaggering Southern police chief. One of the best examples is early on when Gillespie is still convinced that Virgil killed Mr Colbert. “Whatcha hit him with?” “Hit whom?” “WHOM?” Frankly, folks from Sparta don’t use the word ‘whom’ 

Sparta, Mississippi, is a town in which the racial divides of the ‘60s are not far away. The town authorities are all white, and the whites are distrustful of blacks. Blacks are routinely referred to as “boy”. Gillespie at first refuses to believe that a black man could come by $100 honestly. Harvey (Scott Wilson, yet another murder suspect after his turn in In Cold Blood) asks the suited Virgil how come he is wearing white man’s clothes. Endicott (Larry Gates) runs the cotton plantation; he is cultured and seemingly paternalistic, but he believes that “negros” need to be cultivated over time and mourns the fact that he could once have had Virgil shot. The town mayor also comments that Gillespie’s predecessor would have shot Virgil. The diner refuses to serve Virgil, and car loads of good ol’ boys come to give him a taste of Southern hospitality. 

But they are not the only ones holding prejudices. Virgil too clearly dislikes these sweaty rednecks; his chief in Philadelphia asks him whether he is prejudiced against the locals. When Gillespie realises that he does need Tibbs’ help he goads him cleverly, betting that he would just love to get one over on the Sparta police: “you’re just so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You’ve got such a big head you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don’t think you could let a chance like that pass by.” For a long time Virgil holds to the belief that Endicott is the eminence gris behind the murder, only to admit that he just wanted that to be the case. But he, a wealthy and educated Northerner, is further away from the local black population than the white townsfolk are. Quite simply, he has nothing in common with them other than his skin colour.  

The relationship between him and Gillespie is hence firmly rooted in dislike. But Gillespie is not a homicide expert, so he needs Tibbs’ expertise. Tibbs is calm and methodical; Gillespie has a hair-trigger temper and is prone to locking people up on the slightest provocation and then looking to make the facts fit the judgement (he arrests three innocent men before Virgil brings him the right one). He collects Virgil from the station. When he next tells his new partner to get out of town it is motivated by concern for the man’s safety. By the time Virgil does finally leave the culprit has confessed and a mutual respect has been forged. And in the mean time a blow has been struck for civil rights. Literally. When Endicott slaps Virgil, Virgil slaps him right back. This was unprecedented for the time: the black man raising a fist against his oppressors. There may well have been a lot of communities like Sparta that suddenly felt very nervous about that…

"One - two - three - four - I declare thumb war..."

In the Heat of the Night justifiably deserves to be called a classic. The black man is not a supporting character, the black man is the hero. The black man does not sit idly by bemoaning his fate while waiting for an enlightened white to save him, the black man is perfectly able to shape his own future and demand respect. This is not news in today’s cinema: can you imagine someone slapping Samuel L. Jackson, and him not fighting right back? But for the ‘60s, when civil rights were very much in the news, it broke new ground. 

What have I learnt about Mississippi?
Mississippi in the 1960s was no place to be black. Wages were even lower than those of whites, they might not be served in certain establishments and they were liable to be arrested on spurious charges. “There’s white time in jail and there’s coloured time in jail. The worst kind of time you can do is coloured time.” Meanwhile town authorities were racist and mobs of white locals could be trusted to put uppity blacks in their place. A Confederate bumper sticker means trouble for any passing non-white.

The state abuts the Mississippi River, across which is Arkansas. The Gulf, Mobile & Ohio railroad links the South up to Memphis. And it gets sticky, sweaty and humid… particularly during the heat of the night… 

Can we go there?
There is a Sparta in Mississippi, in Chickasaw County to the north-east of the state. This is not the Sparta of the movie. The real Sparta is a mere village, and certainly would not be a spot for transferring trains. The fictional Sparta seems to be fairly sizeable, and has a bridge across the Mississippi to Arkansas. 

In the Heat of the Night was filmed in Sparta – Sparta, Illinois. Due to its contentious subject matter Sidney Poitier was reluctant to film in Mississippi. Sparta is in the south of Illinois. Nearby can be found Chester, where a bridge that actually does cross the Mississippi was used for the police chase. Compton’s Diner was filmed in Freeburg further north and was a genuine greasy spoon before it was torn down. Endicott’s plantation house was located on Pennell Lane in Dyersburg in north-west Tennessee. The greenhouses added specifically for filming were demolished by a tornado in 1997. The cotton fields at Boals’ Brothers Farm in Tiger Tail nearby were also used in the film.

The Old G.M.O Depot in Sparta is now the Misselhorn Art Gallery; it has a permanent display on the filming of the movie.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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