Friday, 17 February 2017

Film Friday: "In the Heat of the Night" (1967)

This week on "Film Friday" I am celebrating Sidney Poitier's 90th birthday by telling you a little bit about one of his most well-known and acclaimed films. This was also the Best Picture winner at the 40th Academy Awards on April 10, 1968.

Original release poster
Directed by Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night (1967) begins when a prominent white businessman, Philip Colbert (Jack Tetter), is found dead in an alley in Sparta, Mississippi. Hunting for suspects, the police pick up Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a well-dressed Negro, and bring him to headquarters for questioning. But, to the consternation of police chief Bill Gillespie (Roy Steiger), Tibbs turns out to be a top homicide detective from Philadelphia who has been in town visiting his mother. Ordered by his superior in Philadelphia to assist with the case, Tibbs conducts the postmortem examination and thus displays his superior knowledge of criminology. Though enraged, Gillespie reluctantly acquiesces in Tibbs's findings.

As the investigation gets underway, Gillespie accuses young Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson) of the murder when he catches him with the dead man's wallet, but Tibbs quickly proves that Oberst stole the wallet after he found the body. Tibbs, for his part, is so determined to establish the guilt of Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), an influential but insolent and bigoted conservative who opposed Colbert's progressive plans for a modern factory, that he too makes a false accusation. Gradually, as Tibbs and Gillespie combine their efforts, a grudging tolerance develops between them. After Gillespie has wrongly charged his own deputy, Sam Wood (Warren Oates), with the murder, the local tease, Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean), is dragged into the police station by her brother, who claims that she is pregnant by Wood. Upon learning about an abortionist called Mama Caleba (Beah Richards), Tibbs visits the woman; and he is still with her when Delores arrives, accompanied by the actual father of her child, diner counterman Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James). Tibbs confronts him, and Henshaw confesses that he murdered Colbert to obtain the money for Delores' abortion. With the case closed, Gillespie drives Tibbs to the railway depot. The two men shake hands in acknowledgment of the mutual respect that has grown between them. 

Virgil Tibbs: They call me Mister Tibbs!

In 1933, while working part-time as a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, John Ball had the idea for a novel that would bring together a racist white police chief and a proud black detective to solve a murder. However, he did not get the story written until 1960 and it took another five years for Harper & Row to publish it as In the the Heat of the Night. In terms of race relations, 1965 was an "incendiary" year in American history. It gave us the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; the assassination of human rights activist Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York; and the Watts riots by African-American against the police force in Los Angeles, California. In the atmosphere that engendered these events and more, the story of a white cop and a black cop teamed to solve a crime in a Southern town could not have been more volatile. Indeed, In the Heat of the Night was highly controversial upon release.

The controversy generated around In the Heat of the Night caught the attention of independent producer Walter Mirish, who purchased the right to Ball's novel in 1966. He immediately envisioned it as a vehicle for Sidney Poitier, who had recently won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963) - the first black man to achieve such an accolade. However, Ball had trouble convincing his usual studio, United Artists, to distribute the film for fear it would be banned in Southern states. By using some fancy accounting tricks, he finally convinced that if he kept the budget down it would turn a profit even if it never played down South.

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger
Mirisch's first choice to adapt the novel was television writer Robert Alan Aurthur, whose teleplay "A Man Is Ten Feet Tall" had been such a big success on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1955, two years before being filmed as Edge of the City (1957). Poitier had starred in both versions. Unfortunately, his initial attempts at a screenplay for In the Heat of the Night did not meet Mirisch's approval, and he was let go. Poitier's agent, Martin Baum, then suggested Stirling Silliphant, a prolific television writer often hailed as the next Paddy Chayefsky. Silliphant's television commitments were so great that he had only had time to write two films, Village of the Damned (1960) and The Slender Thread (1965). The latter had starred Poitier, and though it had failed at the box office, the star was sufficiently impressed with Silliphant's work to want him for this new film.

In translating the novel to the screen, Silliphant transformed Tibbs from the polite, friendly Californian originally created into a hard-nosed, proud Northern black from Philadelphia. Part of that was a concession to Poitier's screen image. The actor had risen in popularity because of his ability to capture characters smoldering under the weight of racism. By contrast, the original Tibbs simply accepted it on the rare occasions it occurred in the novel, in which the sheriff and his men and even the town boss, Endicott, are all open-minded individuals who treat him as an equal. Gillespie, a minor character in the novel and originally an open-minded newcomer to his job, was transformed into a major character, a veteran officer struggling to reconcile his own racism with the need to work with the black detective. He also transformed the novel's murder victim from a concert promoter to an industrialist trying to bring a factory to the small town, which would rejuvenate it economically. Filling the supporting cast with racists, particularly Endicott, completed the story's transformation from standard detective fiction to civil-rights parable. 

Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier on the set
In Silliphant's first draft, Gillespie was a tall, good-looking man introduced stepping out of his shower. Through re-writes, he was changed to a heavyweight, aging man more in keeping with the images of Southern sheriffs playing out on news reports about the civil rights movement. Jewison's first choice to play Gillespie was George C. Scott. When the actor was tied up with work on The Flim-Flam Man (1967), the director considered Lawrence Tierney, but eventually turned to Rod Steiger.

Norman Jewison had started his career directing variety shows for television, most notably The Judy Garland Show. He broke into film as a comedy director with pictures like 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), with Tony Curtis, and The Thrill of It All (1963), with Doris Day. After stepping in at the last minute to take over The Cincinnati Kid (1965) when Sam Peckinpah was fired after only four days of shooting, he landed a two-film deal with Mirisch. Their first film together, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), may have marked a return to comedy, but it also satirized the Cold War. Hoping to establish himself as a more serious director, however, he began campaigning to direct In the Heat of the Night. At first, Mirisch tired to talk him out of it, arguing that the low-budget film would be a comedown for him. When Jewison agreed to shoot it at the Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood, he won the job.

When The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming became a big hit, Jewison used his new clout to convince Mirisch to let him film In the Heat of the Night on location. Originally, he wanted to shoot it in Mississippi. Poitier, however, had almost been killed by the Ku Klux Klan while visiting that state with Harry Belafonte, so he insisted they shoot in the North. Location scouts found the town of Sparta, Illinois, and Silliphant changed the film's location from Wells to Sparta, so they would not have to change local signs. 

Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs
The decision to use Sparta's name in the film was mainly financial. Jewison planned the production to keep costs down as much as possible. That included using lesser-known actors in the supporting cast. Jewison was ready to offer a contract to former child actor Robert Blake to play Harvey Oberst, the chief suspect in the case, when the casting director brought in Scott Wilson, who had never made a film before. Several other players had worked with casting director Lynn Stalmaster in television, including William Schallert, Anthony James and Warren Oates. The best-known supporting player at the time was Lee Grant, cast as the victim's wife. She had recently won an Emmy for her performance on Peyton Place, her first major role since being blacklisted a decade earlier. Jewison insisted on casting her because her career had been stalled for so long by the blacklist. It was her first Hollywood film since Middle of the Night (1959). 

Filmed in late 1966, In the Heat of the Night premiered on August 2, 1967 to overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. It was hailed as "a modern classic of its genre," "a taut, tingling, cinematic gem," "a film that has the look and sound of actuality and the pounding pulse of truth." In addition, TIME magazine contended that Poitier and Steiger "break brilliantly with black-white stereotype." The film was also hugely successful at the box-office, establishing several New York City house records in August and becoming America's most popular movie by the end of that month. At the 40th Academy Awards, In the Heat of the Night won the coveted statuette for Best Picture, in addition to Best Supporting Actor for Steiger, Best Adapted Screenplay for Silliphant, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. It also received nominations for Best Director and Best Sound Editing.

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