Sunday, 27 September 2015

They Call Mister Tibbs! (1970)

"They call me MISTER Tibbs!"

So said Sidney Poitier's visiting detective in the face of a less than hospitable Southern welcome in 1967's classic In The Heat of the Night. Three years later, and Poitier returned to the character with this, the first of two sequels, which directly references that line of dialogue in its title. 

Unfortunately, you take the character of Virgil Tibbs out of In The Heat of the Night and you're left with not very much. The film attempts to open his character out more, by giving him a private and domestic family life of marriage and parenthood away from his work, but this only serves to mystify the viewer - if he was a married father of two infant children, a boy and a girl, why no mention of this during his previous case in Sparta, Mississippi? You'd think him being waylaid up there would lead to calls home, right? The sequel also goes some way to further muddy the waters by placing Tibbs in San Francisco rather than Philadelphia, which was previously established. When his superior points out he's been with them twelve years and he explains he's known the Martin Landau character, one of the suspects in the murder case he's assigned, all his life then you know this is one big continuity mess.

Giving him a family doesn't help the matter of his character either; in slapping his infant son across the face several times, encouraging him to "puff, puff" on a giant cigar he gives him to smoke and giving him hard liqueur to drink, it's safe to say that this Mr Tibbs won't be winning Father of the Year any time soon! Seriously this scene is quite staggering now, I'm not sure how it looked in 1970, but it looks bad now.

The title may proclaim They Call Me Mister Tibbs! but really Poitier's character here could have been A.N Other, and the film goes the way of many sequels, walking the well trod path to mediocrity. Poitier tries but unlike In The Heat of the Night he has no one really to bounce off - Martin Landau and Anthony Zerbe, with respect, are no Rod Steiger and Warren Oates. The murder mystery is a dull, limp affair that is well signposted from the off to the audience but seems to prove elusive to the cops on screen who wade through it like it were made of treacle. These great swathes of slow, poor procedural action are interspersed with Tibbs' domestic problems which feel like things The Cosby Show might have considered a decade later. Director Gordon Douglas has an annoying habit of placing his actors directly in front of the camera to deliver their lines to the viewer and he also has terrible issues with pacing, with only Quincy Jones' dated funk kicking in signifying to us that Something Is About To Happen. When it does, it occasionally lifts this from the routine, but it quickly slumps back into inertia not long after. 

Trivia: the opening murder scene is scored by Jones' reworking of his own Something's Cookin', which he had previously used in his soundtrack to The Italian Job just a year earlier. It kind of sums They Call Me Mister Tibbs! up actually, trading off past glories.

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