In The Heat Of The Night – Observations and Thoughts

MPW-55059

“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.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here.

 

 

Advertisements
In The Heat Of The Night – Observations and Thoughts

Harold and Maude

harold-and-maude

Dear Reader, today marks the first post not written by this site’s first author. This essay concerns Hal Ashby’s 1971 picture, Harold and Maude, and is written by a dear friend of mine, currently studying a degree in English Literature and Film Studies. I won’t say any more, other than he’s seen far more films than I have and I envy him greatly for it.

-Alex


 

‘If you want to sing out sing out, and if you want to be free be free’

Cat Stevens

Harold and Maude is a name you very well may have heard and know, however why is this? This story of two lovers, one in his early 20s and the other bordering 80 has been a central example of cult cinema since its release in 1971. However what is it that has drawn people to this deeply strange 70s romantic comedy, despite the film not being a great success upon first release?

The film does not perhaps have the same cult status as something like Blade Runner or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both of which have become lauded by either critics or fans. Harold and Maude instead has retained its popularity steadily throughout the decades seemingly just through the strength of the film itself and not through any real dedicated effort by a fan base. This is not to belittle the previously mentioned films, Harold and Maude is just an interesting inclusion to what has now almost become a genre of films in and of itself. Cult cinema is usually rooted in genre, most noticeably horror or sci-fi, for a romantic comedy to occupy the same status is odd. However it does feel apt when it comes to Harold and Maude for it to retain this status as a cult classic. The film as already mentioned has an off kilter subject matter which may deter viewers, however this is to their own detriment.

The film when just taken at a basic plot level shouldn’t work, a boy obsessed with staging his own suicide falls in love with a youthful old woman. It’s just such an unusual way to stage romance. But when seen it is clear that the absurdity in the story gives the film such a lasting effect in the cannon of cult cinema. Much like Wes Anderson, whose clear influence from the film has been noted the offbeat nature of the love stories in his films have only elevated him in this post-modern landscape to great success. If only Hal Ashby in his time had been able to enjoy the same virtues.

The films tone could easily slide into the realm of creepy or even saccharine but this is deftly avoided by Ashby. Upon release Roger Ebert hated the film stating ‘The visual style makes everyone look fresh from the Wax Museum, and all the movie lacks is a lot of day-old gardenias and lilies and roses in the lobby, filling the place with a cloying sweet smell.’ A sentiment which whilst as always incredibly well written I disagree with. While this isn’t the most visually stimulating of films, I feel that this is not what the film is trying to achieve. Harold as a character may be a strange and morbid boy but he is in a way the emotional heart of the film. Despite Maude in her youthfulness and appreciation of life, it is Harold who I felt really grabbed me. Through his indifference to the world you can see why he is like that, with nothing to do and no one to talk to he can only express himself in violence and nihilism. Following the death of his father he has become obsessed with trying to be dead despite wanting to be alive. He is stuck in a distinctly conservative American world, one where everyone around him feels he needs to do more even if that means going to war in Vietnam. Harold’s attitude for life should strike a chord with anyone who’s felt the crushing boredom of not knowing what or why they are doing anything.

Maude as a character embodies almost the complete opposite to Harold, if Harold is darkness Maude is blinding light. Ruth Gordon is such a strongly optimistic portrayal of a woman in old age it is hard to not fall in love with her yourself. After being shown the darkness of Harold’s mind-set, the optimism and light which comes from this old woman with everything to live for and nothing to lose is beautiful. The question of age shouldn’t and doesn’t matter to these two, and in turn it doesn’t matter to the audience.

This all being said I don’t think that this should be heralded as some example of incredible film-making. This is why I feel that perhaps Ebert is a little harsh to the film in saying it makes everyone look like a wax figure. Yes its death obsessed and has a muted visual style but does it really matter in a film like this? It’s more a character study and a rallying cry for the little man than Ebert gives it credit for. By focusing on these two weirdo’s on the outskirts of society Ashby is looking more at character and dialogue than his own auteurship. The acting may not all be brilliant and there is a naivety to it which could easily be grating. I can also say that I don’t love every scene of this film, for example I could have done without the sequence with the policeman which came off a bit too ‘haha look at the narc’ for my taste. This is definitely a case of me being in a different audience to those in the early 70s, it just does seem as subversive any more in the 2010’s. It’s the characters Ashby wants to shed a light on and not his film-making, which is far from boring but also not a visual feast. Direction is not the be all and end all of great films and I feel this film shows that.

Following on from the slightly dated policeman scene, it is obvious that this film is being made in the wake of the 60s hippy dream failing. Despite the optimism that the 60s brought, all that is left now is the conservative aftermath of that. This is why there is so much contempt for any kind of authority. The biggest laughs in the film come from these authority figure like his war loving uncle despite losing an arm. His mother played with brilliant gusto by Vivian Pickles who just seems to reek of societal compliance, has completely shut off her emotions. She cares not for Harold and his antics and instead busies herself with trying to make Harold ‘normal’.

Despite all this morbid subject matter and depressive view on the world itself, the film promotes being different in a really lovely way. The film is without a doubt sweet in nature. For me, it doesn’t trip over into being sickly because of this darkness. The weirdness only helps me understand the place from which these characters are coming from and heightens the emotional impact of the main characters relationship. I fell in love with Harold and Maude, presumably in the same way generations of people have been before me and long may it continue.

-Ed

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here.

Harold and Maude