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Monday, February 7, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #40: In The Heat of the Night (1967)

This post was contributed by film student and film journalist Lyz Reblin. Check out her blog Online Film School at your earliest opportunity - you won't regret it!

Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Rod Steiger, Sidney Poitier

I’ve owned In the Heat of the Night for about a year now, but never got around to watching it. If it wasn’t for having to write this review, it could have sat on my shelf for another year. In the history of the Academy Awards rarely have I seen all the picture nominees each year. 1968’s ceremony would be an exception. To this date I’ve seen Dr. Dolittle, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, and now finally In the Heat of the Night. Why Dr. Dolittle ever got nominated is beyond me, but I can understand In the Heat of the Night’s nod. However, I feel that The Graduate and even Bonnie and Clyde have more staying power in our culture. I do understand that In the Heat of the Night was a film that broke the mold for black actors in Hollywood, but besides that I don’t think it stands up to Mike Nichols’ and Arthur Penn’s films.

In the Heat of the Night takes place in Sparta, Mississippi. Virgil Tibbs, a police officer from Philadelphia, just happens to be waiting for his train ride home when a murder takes place in town. After being brought in as a suspect, Officer Tibbs becomes a resource (even if an unwanted one) for Chief of Police Gillespie. But will both of their feelings of racism cloud their judgment in finding the killer?

Now In the Heat of the Night was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning six. I’ve already said that I think it was unworthy of winning Best Picture, though deserving of the nomination. How Hal Ashby could win for best film editing in the same year of Bonnie and Clyde (which wasn’t even nominated) is remarkable in my mind. As for best adaptation, I have never read any of the source materials for any of the nominees, but as a picture I still prefer The Graduate.

I do, however, agree with two of the Oscars it took that night. Best sound is actually tied into Best Actor in this case, which may sound odd but let me explain. Rod Steiger as Gillespie had a tendency to constantly be smacking gum. The sound of his loud chewing added flair to his character and whatever scene he was in. Whether this was a choice of the director or actor (I’m leaning towards actor) it was one that revealed much about Gillespie. Whether or not he was masticating the gum, you could almost tell his mood or what he was thinking. Of course, this makes me wonder why the film didn’t win for Best Sound Effects, but that’s a whole different matter.

For those who haven’t seen the film, one may be confused why Rod Steiger is considered the leading role, instead of supporting. Usually, I denote leading actors as the catalyst of a film, those that keep the momentum going. Both Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger’s characters do this. It is their chemistry and conflict that moves the film along. Therefore, in a different time, both Poitier AND Steiger would have been nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. As to who would have won, I still would go with Steiger. Poitier has an outstanding presence, which cannot be overlooked. But Gillespie is a much more complicated character to my mind, and the one that goes through the most change in the film.

Quincy Jones was nominated for In Cold Blood’s score and not In the Heat of the Night. The score was a driving force in this film, well composed. But the music category has specific rules on who can be nominated, so I must assume that In the Heat of the Night met the quality standard, but fell short somewhere else.

Though I feel the film is undeserving in some of its accolades, I am still glad I got around to watching In the Heat of the Night. Undeserving of awards does not make it a bad film; it merely means that I felt some films were better in certain aspects.

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