In the Heat of the Night (Blu-ray Review)10 Feb, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant.
I’ve always had a boil in a bad spot for director Norman Jewison’s 1967’s Oscar winner that has nothing to do with the picture’s tough-to-deny level of watchability, which extends to this day. This is because two of the year’s co-nominees that it beat were the very ones that launched a new and durably exciting movie era: Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (whose maker, Mike Nichols, took the best director award in one of those picture/director splits where the picture that failed to win top honor almost always gets posterity’s final vote). All of this is dealt with, of course, in Mark Harris’s 1999 Pictures at a Revolution, which chronicled the year’s Oscar race (Doctor Dolittle, anyone?) — and was probably my favorite book on modern-era movies since David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure.
Eventually, Heat launched a successful TV series with Harold Rollins and Carroll O’Connor, but the more immediate indicator of the degree to which it entered the pop culture mainstream came with the debut entry of Jonathan Winters’ CBS variety show about five months after Night-the-movie premiered. Winters took the bigoted Rod Steiger Mississippi sheriff’s role and Ivan Dixon took off on Sidney Poitier’s professionally esteemed Philadelphia homicide cop — visiting in the South and called in to help on a local murder case. Called Hate in the Night, the sketch had a bit where (in one of the specifics I can remember) Dixon spouted off a lot of effete language that was clearly over Winters’ head — spurring the puzzled latter to ask, “Does this mean I have bad breath?” (Or something close.)
Meanwhile, the Sparta, Miss., where the movie’s Stirling Silliphant script takes place is not even geographically the real same-name town — which was a good thing for the locals because this is not exactly a chamber of commerce undertaking. A Northern entrepreneur has come to Sparta to build a factory that will provide numerous jobs for the residents, including blacks (this aspect none too popular with the local power structure). So when this Yankee-with-a-liberal wife (Lee Grant) is found murdered, there is no shortage of suspects, though Sheriff Steiger and the boys spend most of the picture grilling drifters and other convenient lowlifes, if not necessarily the right ones. As mysteries go, the movie really isn’t much, but the characterizations and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography carry the day (it should also be remembered that Hal Ashby also took the editing Oscar in the years before he became a leading director — one more critically lauded than Jewison, in fact).
The Blu-ray gives a good rendering of how the movie looked in ’67, getting the most of grimy settings shot in artistically limited United Artists DeLuxe Color of the day, which was never much. Still, you can see the subtle manner in which Steiger is lit in that scene where his character, on a minimalist apartment couch, begins to bare his soul a little before retreating after has shown too much. And, as explosive drama goes, there there’s the famous bit where Larry Gates, as the burg’s horticulturist power broker, gives Poitier a slap across the face — whereupon, in a boom-boom response, Super Sidney responds in kind (with good reflexes). It really had to be invigorating for black audiences to see this kind of thing in ’67, though it could lead to discomforting situations. A year later, as the only Caucasian at a downtown movie palace a showing of If He Hollers, Let Him Go!, I was doing a quick eyeball of the exits when lead Raymond St. Jacques exacted some kind of anti-cracker revenge on an assailant of some kind, and a black male yelled out, “Kill the white man!” in my theater, to a chorus of concurring sentiment. This is when you know you should have gone to an Elvis picture instead.
This was, of course, the defining single year of Poitier’s career: Night, To Sir with Love and then Christmas capper Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in which Beah Richards (cast as Sparta’s No. 1 back-room abortionist) plays the actor’s mother. I have a warm spot for Night’s place in history, and for the fact that it teamed Poitier and Jewison — probably the two people in my career that I ended up liking best when interviewing them. But more than ever, I think its win over Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate was a worse transgression than How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane and Oliver! over 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those, at least, were Oscar-caliber movies, hands down.