“The heat makes people crazy” – Huey Freeman, The Boondocks, Season 1 Episode 14
In The Heat Of The Night (1967) is a landmark film. An indelible mark on film culture and history. Though the film has now been heavily reduced to the iconic phrase “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” , it’s still lost none of its incendiary flavour and quality, though it’s of a different tone of fire to say, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), it is nevertheless still a testament to film making in every way shape and form, while also being a work of considerable ideological weight, about tough men with conflicting duties and desires and just…well just trying to do the right thing.
It follows Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) being roped into investigating a murder in a racist southern town, alongside a Chief Bill Gillespie who’s arrogant, bull-headed, racist but poignantly sad, played by Rod Steiger. The acting alone is enough to make this a must see, as both put on absolutely dominating presences on-screen. However here are some other benefits to extol:
-Haskell Wexler A.S.C – His cinematography is deft in this film, truly an expert at work. It’s the kind of cinematographic skill that people insert into film textbooks to study, because it’s so subtle you don’t pick up on it immediately, but its impact is so resounding that its impossible to ignore.
-Hal Ashby – Who won an Academy Award for Film Editing (also director of Harold and Maude) stitches the film together in such an illustrious way, in a very classic, minimalist way allowing the scenes to flow and the footage to complement that without ever losing the tension involved.
-Staging- The staging of this film is like watching a ballet. Moves are carefully planned, deliberate, thoughtful. Even in a film packed with tension, car chases and drama, the movement is exact in its roughness. Characters reveal themselves through their body language, their expressions, not just their words. It requires the dissection of the sum of its parts, because it’s so well done that you have to take it apart to see how its done.
-Stirling Silliphant- Dialogue in this film is a pinnacle, though no doubt raised by the electric performances. The mystery is delicately unpacked, through the revealing of humans rather than the search for evidence. Character’s weave in and out of fixed moral positions, constantly playing on the duties they and others possess. The duty to law enforcement, to their race, to their friends, to their families. This is a film that remembers people commit crimes, whatever and whoever they may be.
-Colour palette and lighting- A film in a naturalistic style makes it always difficult to the untrained eye to notice because if it’s doing its job it shouldn’t be noticed, but the film’s colours are fantastic. The white lilies in Endicott’s greenhouse. The yellow sunglasses. Specific flashes of colour against the beige and the sun just add some real touches to the film. As for the lighting, it’s already important for being the first film to be lit specifically conscious of a black man’s skin, but beyond that the lighting is gorgeous, both staged for dramatic impact and very natural.
Quincy Jones – The soundtrack in this film, including Ray Charles singing the title track, is just …well listen to it.
-Historical potency- Great characters become archetypes in our stories. Virgil Tibbs, the educated, conscious defender against racism fatherly type is one that has endured, a man of grand stature. A good example of this channeling is Lawrence Fishburne as “Furious” in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991). Not only has the archetype endured, but the film itself stands as a true monument to the forces of co-operation when the whole world’s against you, something director Norman Jewison specifically angled for.
-Norman Jewison- Speaking of, all these elements and much more are united by the director’s vision, and Jewison produces something incredible. He manages to convey the heat of the town, the heat of conflict, of battles of verbal war and physical confrontations which to this day still shock (read: Mr Endicott). It is a film of striking and restrained fury, anger at injustice, and the forgery of respect which can only be gained by people trying to do good things. It goes to pains to illustrate that no one person is completely right, and no one person can do the job alone. Even the best of us need support. That’s how we lift ourselves, by lifting others.
The reason I’ve picked out just a few of these individual parts, is because something very brilliant happens in this film, is that every part serves the function of the film. Quincy Jones soundtrack is both completely idiosyncratic in that it sounds like Quincy Jones, but also in that it underpins the setting, the place they’re in. The music wasn’t created out of context, it was made for the film. There’s no showboating on the performance side, with the actors involved constantly on the edge of bursting, no mealy or scene chewing involved.
The only flair involved is that of the story as a whole. No individual aspects blindly shines brighter than any other, but since all the aspects are so polished, and are so well done, the whole film is raised to the status it so rightly deserves, a classic.
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