Friday, 19 February 2016

Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night" — Fowl Owl on the Prowl

The IMDB Top 250 is a funny old thing and if you took it too seriously it would drive you mad. When I first wrote down the list, The Shawshank Redemption was Number 1 and In the Heat of the Night was near the bottom. Today, Heat has dropped off the list but Shawshank is still Number 1.

In many ways they are similar films. Both show a well educated man exposed to the brutalities of a system not designed for someone of his background. Both show the man's talents being recognized and appreciated by the local authority figure. Both show a talented and principled man stubbornly holding out against the odds.


But for me, "Heat" is by far the more successful film. It lacks the gloss of Shawshank but replaces it with virtuoso colours. And what's the more resonant subject: the plight of a white collar worker thrown to prison thugs or the plight of a northern educated black in America's Deep South?

So why is one at the top and one at the bottom? Who knows? It's interesting that Heat never shows Tibbs beaten up, unlike Dufresne in Shawshank. Jewison refuses to present Tibbs as a victim. I suspect it is the sentimental portrayal of a man superhumanly working through repeated beatings that makes people vote for Shawshank all the time.

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Review continues below...

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The music is wonderful, from the title song to the nocturnal "Fowl Owl on the Prowl". And the cinematography is out of this world. The saturated red of a police light on a car seat at night. The perfect lighting of Poitier's skin. The stunning cotton field scenes. And so much more. Every scene is exquisitely composed.

I love the acting from the policemen 
they play the stupid
lethargy of heavyset middle-aged men in the heat to perfection.

And the racial points are all the more effective for following the comic buffoonery of the casual prejudice of the policemen. The famous line "They call me MISTER Tibbs" and that slap in the orchid greenhouse on top of the hill both hit the ball out of the park.

There are some fun homoerotic undertones. Immaculately dressed throughout in the heat, Tibbs has risked a visit to the dangerous South to visit his mother. When confronted by thugs waving metal chains and stakes, Tibbs coolly picks up a much longer metal bar. Later he nonchalantly poses with another big phallic wooden stake. There's the bizarre improvised scene between Tibbs and police chief Gillespie in Gillespie's house, where single middle-aged Gillespie confesses that Tibbs is the first visitor, male or female, to his home. Then there is the 'It would give me a world of satisfaction to horsewhip you, Virgil' line and the awkward farewell scene at the train.

But it is at a non-sexual level that Gillespie warms to Tibbs through the film and it becomes clear that Gillespie is as much an outsider in the town as Tibbs. One of his staff says of him that he never smiles. He's cooped up in his office all day. At night he drinks and suffers from insomnia. The night is almost as long and hot for Gillespie as it is for a black fearing the arrival of a lynch mob.

I won't give it top marks since some of the plot twists aren't played to perfection. Too often we know the latest twist is false immediately because Tibbs demolishes it at once. The tension falls as a result 
overall, the crime plot is compromised by bringing the racial and character themes
to the front.

But it's a treat, a favourite from the IMDB 250 list, even if it's not on it anymore.

Personal Score: 9/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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