Saturday, 26 September 2015

In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

Legend has it that producer Walter Mirisch was really up against it with In The Heat of the Night, having to try and prove to the money men at United Artists that a film featuring a black lead getting the better of a town full of rednecks could still make money, even if it never opened in any Southern cinemas! 

But there's more to In The Heat of the Night than the obvious and important issue of race. At its heart, it's a film about a culture clash - the metropolitan, sophisticated big city living of the North, and the uncultivated, preserved-in-aspic small town community living of the Bible-belt. The culture clash formula is still a worthy one to employ in crime drama; Coogan's Bluff, and latterly TV's McCloud, took the same idea but came at it from the opposite direction (small town to big city) and one need only look at two of UK TV's biggest successes of the previous decade, Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes, to see how effective the trope still is. Indeed Sidney Poitier's Virgil Tibbs shares something of the modernity of the leads from that time travel cop drama because arriving in the town of Sparta, Mississippi really is like travelling back thirty or so years.

With that in mind, you could argue that In The Heat of the Night could just as easily have played out featuring a white detective from the North, finding himself assigned to solve a murder in Mississippi. It could have played out like that, but it would have been considerably less effective, less significant and not exactly groundbreaking.

Which brings us to that scene

Wealthy local plantation owner Eric Endicott is being questioned in his greenhouse about the murder by Detective Tibbs and a brilliantly on-form Rod Steiger as the local Police Chief, Gillespie. Naturally, Endicott isn't used to being questioned by anyone, least of all a black man, and he doesn't like it. Unable to stomach what he perceives to be the visiting detective's insolence a moment longer, Endicott reverts to type and slaps him across the face. 

But Tibbs isn't some 'houseboy' and, without warning, he immediately slaps him back. Harder. 

Endicott is both astonished and tearful. "There was a time, when I could have had you shot" he remarks, and it's not actually clear whether he's crying because of the pain and the embarrassment or if he's crying for those days he no doubt considers halycon. Probably a mixture of all three.

The important thing to remember about this pivotal scene is that the slap Tibbs retaliates with wasn't scripted. No one knew Poitier was going to do it. And when he does it, you feel it transcends acting, to personally tap into Poitier's own anger; a direct 'fuck you' response to every white authority figure who had ever humiliated or abused him up until that very moment. A retort to the Klansmen who followed his every move in North Carolina when he visited his friend, the actor and singer, Harry Belafonte. A stand against the rednecks who made the few days of location shooting in Tennessee so unbearable for him that he slept with a gun under his pillow all the time he was there.

In The Heat Of The Night - one of the finest, most important films of the twentieth century.

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