Sunday, June 26, 2011

In the Heat of the Night (1967): The Hands of Virgil Tibbs

Everything was going so well in Sparta, Mississippi. A new factory had been built. Business was booming, and new jobs were being created. The factory’s owner got murdered, but the police had the whole situation under control. The fact that the town was called Sparta in the first place told you everything you needed to know about the police themselves: they dispatched justice quickly, asked questions later, showed no mercy, paid no attention to the advice of outsiders.

All of that changed one hot summer night, when a stranger entered town and meddled in their affairs. He began touching everything. Their evidence. Their witnesses. Their suspects. And the police were appalled—because his hands were of a different color than theirs.

That’s one way of interpreting Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), one of those great American classics which nobody ever forgets. Winner of the 1967 Academy Award for Best Picture, it is sometimes dismissed as a film that won the Oscar out of sheer political correctness, but far too many moviegoers in recent years have overlooked the significant accomplishments of the movie Jewison actually made. The first two times I saw In the Heat of the Night, I admired it as an entertaining but seemingly conventional murder story. A third viewing enlightened me to what the film actually is: an aesthetic portrait of a black cop’s gradual deconstruction of a white justice system. When Jewison told Senator Robert Kennedy about the project at a New Year’s Eve party in Sun Valley, Idaho, the former U.S. Attorney General was astonished. “It’s very important, Norman, that you make this movie,” Kennedy advised him. “The time is right for a movie like this. Timing is everything—in politics, in art, and in life itself.”

In the Heat of the Night works so well, I think, because Jewison is one of those special directors with a talent for determining the creative differences in a narrative. The film’s mostly-white cast (Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, Scott Wilson, Anthony James) is broken by the commanding entrance of Sidney Poitier, who steps off a train in the film’s opening scene and leaves behind a shadow so dark it obscures a puppy trailing curiously outside the train station’s screen door. One of the pleasures of In the Heat of the Night is in watching as Poitier’s presence slowly begins to throw off the film’s white supporting characters, one-by-one. Jewison’s camera is primarily in love with Poitier’s black hands, which serve multiple purposes in the film—whether they’re inspecting a white corpse, consoling the white hands of a witness, examining the white hands of a suspect or returning the blows of a man’s white hand with a counterblow to that man’s white face.

If this sounds like a far-fetched interpretation, consider one of the first scenes in the film. The police have found the dead body of Colbert, the factory owner from Chicago whose murder will probably cause an upset in the town’s economy (“He came all this way to build a factory, make something out of this town, before they got him,” mutters an undertaker). The undertakers are alarmed, then, when Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) suddenly walks in to inspect the body for himself, and Jewison’s camera closes in on Poitier’s hands as they slowly move up and down the dead white flesh, in Tibbs’ attempt to determine Colbert’s time of death. From this point onwards, Jewison signifies the crucial direction in which the film is headed: that the delivery of justice for a white man’s death now rests in a black man’s hands.

Virgil Tibbs is a police officer from Philadelphia. He has come to Sparta to visit his mother, and is not a happy camper when the Sparta police pounce on him just hours after Colbert’s murder; with his black skin, well-dressed appearance and wallet chock-full of money, he sticks out like a sore thumb in town, and that’s all it takes for the Sparta police to arrest him as a suspect. The first time Tibbs meets Gillespie (Rod Steiger), Sparta’s burly old police chief, Gillespie is first amused, then annoyed, then embarrassed, then outraged by Tibbs’ presence. Amused that a well-dressed black man appears to have murdered Colbert. Annoyed that Tibbs professes ignorance when Gillespie excitedly asks him, "What'd ya hit him with?" Embarrassed when Tibbs reveals he’s a cop from Philly. Outraged when Tibbs proudly declares that he makes “a hundred and sixty-two dollars and thirty-nine cents per week.” It is only after Tibbs makes a phone call to his supervisor in Philly that Gillespie considers, hey: why not let Tibbs stay in town and help them solve the case?

Here, then, is the movie’s second running theme: the fluctuations in mood and decision-making of the Gillespie character, who doesn’t want a black man helping him track down Colbert’s killer but doesn’t really have much of a choice. Whenever Gillespie enlists the help of Tibbs, he makes progress; when he doesn’t, he makes none. It is Gillespie who allows Tibbs to inspect Colbert’s corpse, and it is Gillespie who allows Tibbs to question Endicott (Larry Gates), who would rather see blacks working as fieldhands out on his plantation than listen to one interrogate him in his own greenhouse. But Gillespie also wants to hurry up and be done with the case, and, thus, acts irrationally whenever Tibbs is quick to invalidate his evidence. When Tibbs, for example, proves that Harvey (Scott Wilson) is innocent, Gillespie throws Tibbs in jail; and when Tibbs proves that Officer Sam (Warren Oates) is innocent, Gillespie angrily orders Tibbs to take the next train back to Philly. In a town where the air conditioner never works and everybody drinks Coca-Cola to stay cool, Gillespie has no patience for Tibbs and his process of logic and reason.

The town itself (actually, Sparta, Illinois) serves as an exhilarating backdrop for the Tibbs/Gillespie conflict at the center of story, and Jewison and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, take advantage of the crisp Southern setting. In the daytime, their camera zooms in on convicts running across high suspension bridges while Hal Ashby’s editing allows them to transition to POV shots of dogs charging through the grass down below. At night, they use optical close-ups of the taillights of Officer Sam’s police car to signal the danger that lies ahead. Aided by a jazzy Quincy Jones score, which boasts a now-famous title song by Ray Charles, their technical contributions help to enhance the conflict between Tibbs and Gillespie, which seems to grow worse and worse with each passing day.

They don’t like each other, clearly. Jewison boldly suggests that they both harbor prejudices. Gillespie may not be a full-fledged racist—he’s on good terms with a black mechanic (Khalil Bezaleel) who resides on the outskirts of town—but he nevertheless takes offense at the prospect of Tibbs, this “nigger boy from Philadelphia,” telling him how to do his job. Tibbs, during his phone call to his supervisor, insists, “No sir, I’m not prejudiced,” but later salivates over the prospect of showing every white man in Sparta just how stupid they are (“You wanna know something, Virgil?” hints Gillespie, “I don’t think you can let an opportunity like that pass by!”). Both men are egged on by their superiors—Tibbs by his supervisor, Gillespie by Sparta’s mayor (William Schallert). But the supervisor in Philly probably just wants Tibbs to play the role of the good Negro archetype, and the mayor of Sparta later wonders why Gillespie doesn’t shoot Tibbs in “self-defense” after Tibbs starts getting on the townspeople’s bad side.

Not a single major player in the movie is without prejudice, either, as demonstrated in the movie’s best-remembered scene, in which Tibbs and Gillespie come to question Endicott, the bigoted plantation owner. Endicott thinks it will be easy to handle Tibbs; he lives by a code in which black people, like orchids, “need care, and feeding, and cultivating—and that takes time.” Tibbs remains cool, continues with his line of questioning, and that’s when Endicott snaps. You cannot call yourself a knowledgeable moviegoer and not be familiar with that famous moment when Endicott walks up to Tibbs and slaps him across the face—and Tibbs smacks him right back.

If you have to, look at this scene twice. Notice the differing ways in which characters in the background react to the two consecutive slaps. Gillespie shows minimal alarm at Endicott’s slap, and even greater alarm at Tibbs’ slap; never before has he ever seen a black man strike a white man. Endicott’s colored butler Henry (Jester Hairston), meanwhile, can be seen in the background reacting with utter horror at Endicott’s slap; he’s obviously seen that kind of bigoted mistreatment on the plantation before. We don’t get to see Henry’s immediate reaction to Tibbs’ counterblow, but once Tibbs and Gillespie are out of the greenhouse, here’s what we do see: Henry shaking his head, disapprovingly, at the pathetic Endicott, who is left sobbing over his orchids.

This scene alone is enough to earn the movie its place in the history of American cinema. If Endicott has charged that it “takes time” for blacks to be cared for, fed and cultivated, then Virgil Tibbs’ slap—a slap heard all around the world in 1967—effectively fast-forwarded through that “time”. We saw a black kid beat Steve McQueen at penny-pitching in Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and now here was Jewison allowing a black man to strike a white man across the face. It was as if Jewison had ripped ten, twenty or maybe a hundred pages out of American cinema’s future, thus eliminating the convention of the loyal, obedient black character that would have plagued movies for the next decade. No: not this time. You couldn’t have later moments in cinema like Mookie’s destruction of the pizza parlor, in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), if Poitier’s assault on the plantation owner had not helped paved the way for it.

Certainly the rest of the movie holds up well. Poitier and Steiger are flanked by an impressive supporting cast, with each character afflicted in one way or the next by Virgil Tibbs’ interference in their private affairs. Observe Lee Grant as Colbert’s wife, nearly panicking over her husband’s death before Tibbs clasps her hand in his, in a quiet maneuver to ease her pain. Or Warren Oates as Sam, embarrassed to admit to Tibbs that he’s a Peeping Tom. Or Scott Wilson as Harvey, loudly distrustful of Tibbs until Tibbs silences him with his index finger, assuring him that he’s on his side. Or Quentin Dean as Delores, the buxom babe who delivers a speech about sex on gravestones in Tibbs’ presence. Or Beah Richards as Mama Caleba, the black abortionist to whom Tibbs warns, “There’s white time in jail and there’s colored time in jail—the worst kind of time you can do is colored time.” Or Anthony James as Ralph, the diner owner who fiddles with a rubber band, hides lemon meringue pies from his customers and dances to imaginary songs like “Fowl Owl on the Prowl” when no one’s around. He’s the bad guy.

And then, of course, there’s Gillespie, played by Steiger in a towering, Academy-Award winning performance. Steiger had worked with great filmmakers before (Fred Zinnemann on Oklahoma!; Elia Kazan on On the Waterfront; Samuel Fuller on Run of the Arrow; Sidney Lumet on The Pawnbroker; David Lean on Doctor Zhivago), but his work with Jewison on In the Heat of the Night would spawn a lasting friendship that led to two more collaborations, on F.I.S.T. (1976) and on The Hurricane (1999). Here, he plays Gillespie as a man with credible authority but a dismal social life, loathed by the townspeople, ostracized by his deputies. It isn’t until 50 minutes into the film when he actually manages to get Tibbs to smile, when he threatens to “horsewhip” Tibbs, and Tibbs responds with a burst of laughter ("My father used to say that to me... even did, once or twice"). Steiger has a great scene in which he invites Poitier over to his house, and the two men have a revealing moment in which Gillespie admits he’s a miserable man, and asks Tibbs if he’s got a girl. “Don’t you just get… a little lonely?” Gillespie asks, only to be insulted by Tibbs’ sincere reply: “No lonelier than you.”

The final scene is the only scene in the movie that doesn’t really work. Tibbs and Gillespie don’t get to have the profound moment of reconciliation they should have had, and all Jewison and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant can muster up is a last-minute handshake between the two men, with Gillespie wishing that Tibbs “take care.” It’s a curiously emotionless moment. Even though the movie has already broken a lot of significant ground up to this point, an emotionally-powerful ending would have been icing on the cake. We get, instead, a thankless, insignificant parting.

Such an ending may have something to do with the movie’s unpopularity amongst moviegoers who don’t think it deserved to win so many Oscars. Looking back, 1967 was, indeed, a strong year for cinema, and many feel—not without good reason—that either Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde or Mike Nichols’ The Graduate should have walked off with the top prize instead. Even something like Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood, which wasn’t even nominated, looks like a better movie today.

So maybe, on an emotional level, In the Heat of the Night lacks the power of those aforementioned films. On an analytical level, however, it can be argued that Jewison’s film holds a candle to them. Watching the movie, we are, essentially, watching a color barrier being smashed to pieces before our very eyes. Whether Poitier is running his hands across a dead white corpse, or the cushions of a car, or the stems of a fern twig which he promptly twirls in front of the camera lens, he’s doing something that would have been unheard of in the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s: he’s permeating an entire town with his touch. For the first time ever in an American movie, a black actor was taking control in a story about the South.

“They call me MISTER Tibbs!” Poitier roars, in that famous shouting match with Steiger. And he means it. Until he came to town, everybody thought they knew how to handle things. But Sparta, Mississippi doesn’t know Virgil Tibbs.


  1. Adam:

    Excellent review of this film that while not great is probably better than most people give it credit for.

    Good of you to mention Haskell Wexler's contribution, which in this film is subservient to the plot. No fancy shots here, just the proper tone, created by minimal lighting, as in the scene late in the film in Gillespie's office where the young girl tells her story about Sam.

    You are correct in highlighting the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie. It is this tension that holds this film together. A storyline such as this - white and black cop solving a murder in the deep South - must have been mesmerizing back in the mid-1960s. It certainly gives this film a historical reference, as this treatment wouldn't have that sort of meaning today, especially after the Lethal Weapon films.

  2. Like Alan Parker's MISSISSIPPI BURNING this is often an underestimated film. Jewison's best film is the musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1973) but I'd say this one ranks up there. But is it the best picture of 1967? Not by a country mile, in the same year that THE GRADUATE and BONNIE AND CLYDE were released and nominated. (THE GRADUATE deserved to win). Steiger was excellent as he was in THE PAWNBROKER back in 1962, and the film made a profound statement on race relations and small-town prejudice. Wexler's cinematography was quite impressive,and the film boats some now-classic lines.

    This is quite a masterful essay as usual.

  3. Tom and Sam, thanks a million to both of you for the excellent comments. Since I've come to really love this film, and have even embraced it as a great film through repeated viewings, I must admit I'm not too bothered that it won multiple Oscars. Though it's probably not a superior film to Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate or In Cold Blood, I can sort of take solace in knowing that at least all three of those films were passed over in favor of another film that's gone on to age as a modern classic. I feel the same way about Close Encounters losing to Annie Hall in '77: even if I prefer CEOT3K, I love Woody's film so much that I can't gripe.

    Wexler's cinematography is amazing here, isn't it Tom? I once tried to send Wexler a Facebook friend request and even hoped to send him a link to this review. Unfortunately, his profile has already reached the FB Friends 4,998 limit. I was pretty mad about that! lol

    Sam, it's interesting that you bring up Mississippi Burning, a film I enjoyed when I was a kid, but for which I've lost some enthusiasm for in recent years. What turned me around on the movie was Jim Emerson's
    scathing attack on it, in which he lambasted Alan Parker for making a movie that, in many ways, was a celebration of Black Panther revenge porn and wiped its feet on the nonviolence messages of MLK. For me, what really hurts that movie is that the heroes are whites: seeing white cops beat up white villains is not exactly the equivalent of parity.

    I actually like Parker's Midnight Express a great deal better, since that's more of a survival story (despite the Turkish stereotypes). I'm not sure how I would react if I watched Mississippi Burning again, but I'm skeptical as to how well it would compare to a movie like In the Heat of the Night where the message is more good-natured, and where one of the heroes is actually black.

  4. Adam:

    I too would love to meet Haskell Wexler, one of the greatest cinematographers of the last 50 years. He is from Chicago, my home town, but I've never had the chance to speak with him.

    His work here is not as celebrated as in some other movies, but he is on solid ground in this film - check out the scene in the greenhouse - perfectly lit.

    Wexler also did an outstanding job on Jewison's "The Thomas Crown Affair." I know you're a big admirer of Jewison's work, so I'd love to read your thoughts on this film. What a stylish piece of work!

    I disagree with you on "MIssissippi Burning." I think the film is excellent and the white on white violence is simply a reflection of this particular case. The message is one of setting things right and Hackman and Dafoe are brilliant.

  5. Also, one of these days I'm going to write about "In Cold Blood." This along with "Bonnie and Clyde" were the two finest films of 1967, in my opinion. Clearly both films were too intense for the Academy members - "Blood" being too chilling and "Bonnie and Clyde" being too violent (at least at that time - it's rather tame by modern standards.

    Thus "Heat of the Night" was a compromise winner as Best Picture that year- though the voters that loved "The Graduate" did get Mike Nichols as Oscar as Best Director. However, as a compromise choice, "Heat of the Night" is a pretty good selection!

    Interestingly, Jewison on the "Heat of the Night" DVD comments that the nomination (he was nominated as Best Director) is the most important thing - not the award. His thoughts are that if the award was the most critical thing, then Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick (among others) would have won an Oscar for their work as director somewhere along the line.

  6. Tom, it's been awhile since I've seen The Thomas Crowne Affair, but I remember admiring a couple of those Wexler shots. One of them being, of course, the "sex with chess" montage. Another one being that amazing shot during the opening bank robbery sequence, when one of the thieves throws a smoke can and the camera (I think) hurriedly tracks up to it. For me, that movie is, above all, a triumph of style over substance: it doesn't have much in the way of story, though McQueen and Dunaway do have great chemistry. Somehow I find myself preferring the work that Jewison and McQueen did on The Cincinnati Kid so much more.

    I'm intrigued by your defense of Mississippi Burning -- I've been thinking for some time that I may need to revisit it. I really loved it when I was 15, probably because I enjoyed seeing FBI agents beat up racist cops. I know Roger Ebert loved it and called it the best movie of 1987. But I recall reading a capsule by Pauline Kael, in which she suggested that the movie wasn't really about the Civil Rights' movement and was more about vigilante justice than anything else. I was particularly troubled when I later found out that 95% of what's in the movie never happened: apparently, the only thing factual about the film is that those four civil rights workers were all murdered. Still, I do have a soft spot for Parker's work (even if he tends to get bombastic at times), which is why I'm considering reviewing Midnight Express one of these days and then trying my hand at a Burning review.

    Let me know when you finish that In Cold Blood piece. If I had to choose the absolute best film of '67, I'd probably go with that one. A few months ago I was on a temporary Richard Brooks kick, actually: Elmer Gantry and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are pretty swell movies, too. I've also got Lord Jim laying around somewhere, but I haven't watched it yet.

  7. Beautifully written piece, Adam, especially the focus on Poitier's hands. I don't think In the Heat of the Night is a great movie, but it's a very good, very strong film that's aged better than most pictures in the 1960s "social problem" genre, mainly because the issues come organically out of the characters and how they interact with one another. (As a mystery-thriller, I think Night is serviceable though somewhat lacking.)

    I disagree on only two points. First, I interpret the butler's reaction to the slapping scene differently: I think the point is that that kind of abuse is exactly what happens on the Endicott plantation -- brutality beneath faux-civility -- and that, like Gillespie (and the audience at the time), he's stunned when Tibbs strikes back. I also find the ending beautifully understated: Gillespie carrying Tibbs's bag is much more effective than any speech he could have delivered. ("I could have done more..." etc.)

    Lastly, I'm surprised to find in the comments admiring comparisons between In the Heat of the Night and Mississippi Burning, of all films, since Jewison's approach to this subject is everything Parker's isn't: thoughtful rather than facile; probing rather than bludgeoning; understated rather than overblown. The point of In the Heat of the Night is that Virgil Tibbs is the law -- natural, legal, moral, ethical -- and succeeds because he enforces it rather than undermines it (as we see in Burning). Like most of Alan Parker's work, Mississippi Burning has aged poorly, and makes In the Heat of the Night look like a masterpiece by comparison.

  8. Craig: I am not and was not "admiring comparisons" between the two films; I was simply establishing a thematic similarity. I know it has become quite fashionable to trash MISSISSIPPI BURNING these days and state all the obvious problems. Thanks though for telling everything me everything about the film that I've already known since it's 1986 release.

    MISSISSIPPI BURNING has its problems but it's hardly the abomination that you and Jim Emerson make it out to be.

  9. Typo above.

    It should have read:

    "Thank though, for telling me everything about the film that I've already known since it's 1986 release."

  10. Actually, Sam, I was responding more to Mr. Hyland's comments than your own, which perhaps I should have made more clear. I also deeply regret that my three-sentence paragraph on "Mississippi Burning" didn't tell you anything you didn't already know; I guess you also don't need me to tell you that any movie depicting Hoover's FBI as advancing the Civil Rights movement has about as much validity as would a version of "The Killing Fields" that depicted the Khmer Rouge as staunch opponents of the death penalty.

    Also, your typo is in the corrected version of the sentence, rather than the original version.

  11. "Also, your typo is in the corrected version of the sentence, rather than the original version."

    Ooooh you are right, I left out the "s." Touche!

    Yeah, you don't need to tell me that either, since my fair regard for MISSISSIPPI BURNING has never mirrored Pauline Kael, whom you apparently parrot here. I am more concerned with the film's acute and harrowing sense of time and place, and of race relations, facts which were most persuasively asserted by Roger Ebert, who named the film the 'best of 1988.'

    I don't always agree with Roger, but heck I think his views came closest to collaring what the film intended to do. Emerson's review is laughably mean-spirited and seemingly intended to gain attention.

    Sorry I took your original comments as aimed at me.

    Adam, check out Ebert's review before you embrace Emerson too profoundly.

  12. Come on, guys... no more flame wars. I hate it when this happens.

    Craig, the slapping scene was definitely one of the hardest scenes in the movie for me to analyze, since it's essentially the heart of the film -- and there's so much going on within the short time frame of the two consecutive slaps. Ashby's editing kind of skews it so that we don't see the reactions all at once. When Tibbs gets slapped, we can see Gillespie reacting with some minimal alarm, while Henry the butler can be seen practically shrieking. Ashby's editing, unfortunately, doesn't show us Henry's immediate reaction when Endicott gets slapped back. We do get to see Henry shaking his head at Endicott when the scene ends, however, which suggests -- tellingly, I believe -- that for the first time ever, a butler is openly acknowledging his own boss' weaknesses. He wouldn't have been able to do that before Tibbs came in smacked him!

    The film's ending feels curiously undernourished to me. It's not that I wish there had been a big speech at the end, just something that might have been more... cinematic. And memorable. One possible reason why the movie hasn't stuck in the minds of people as much as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate or In Cold Blood is because it doesn't quite get to end on a strong note, as those films did.

    As for this Mississippi Burning debate, which I admit I'm to blame for inviting discussion into the matter... we should probably end it right here. Sam, your defense of the movie has encouraged me to want to watch it again -- trust me. That was a movie I liked when I was 15, and my emotional response to it was, at the time, similar to the one Ebert had. But I was young back then, and I responded much easier to movies like that than I do today. Whatever all of our opinions on that movie (and, again, I haven't seen it in ages), I do think Craig is right when he points out that it's everything In the Heat of the Night is not.

  13. Adam, the disagreement with Craig's position was not in any way to disparage him personally. I've seen his name at ICEBOX MOVIES and at other places for years now, and I do really, absolutely respect him. Perhaps I'm jaded by the "anything goes" freedom of WONDERS IN THE DARK, but there wasn't any name calling here by either side, just some subtle ribbing, which I think both of us will get over pretty fast. To be honest, this is the kind of discussion in the comment section that benefits any blosgsite that purports to examine its subject with full candor.

    MISSISSIPPI BURNING, as I said, has some issues for sure. I do not, nor have I ever thought as Roger Ebert does, that the film is remotely close to the best of 1988 (that would be between Tornatore's CINEMA PARADISO, Davies' DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES and Kieslowski's A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING) but it's not as disposable as Emerson would have you believe. It has some powerful moments, Hackman is electrifying, and in subtle ways it depicts a particularly ugly time in our national conscience.

    I respect Craig greatly. You may have overracted to the dialogue here.

  14. Craig:

    I just added your blogsite THE MAN FROM PORLOCK to the Wonders in the Dark blogroll, and commend you an a terrific site. I read your essay on MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and thought it quite excellent. I'll comment there to be more specific.

  15. Whew. I sure hope everything's okay now!

    Happy 4th of July, one and all.

  16. Adam:

    Back to Haskell Wexler now! Yes, that shot of the gas canister is memorable in "Thomas Crown" as is the beautifully staged scene in the cemetery at the end, to which we have to credit both Wexler and Jewison.

    One of us should write a post on Wexler's work. He is a brilliant cinematographer (some of his best work was on "Bound For Glory", "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

    It's hard to imagine those films without the amazing work turned in by Wexler.

    And, yes, once I view "In Cold Blood" again soon, I'll write that post. It is a stunning film, one too often left out of the discussion of the finest films of the last 50 years.

  17. Adam:

    Regarding Pauline Kael, she certainly was an influential critic and I did enjoy reading some of her work.

    However, I lost a lot of respect for her when she wrote that book in which she claimed that only Herman Mankewicz and not Orson Welles wrote the screenplay to "Citizen Kane." She was clearly wrong and other film critics pointed that out. But to dismiss Welles like that? He had more talent in his left hand than she had in her entire body.

    Of course, Kael was also the one who wrote about "Last Tango in Paris" that "this is a movie that people will be arguing about as long as there are movies." She also compared the opening of this film at the 1972 New York Film Festival to the opening performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in 1913.

    Yea, she really nailed that one, didn't she? Sorry, but I'm not as won over with her criticism as some. Give me Andrew Sarris any time.

  18. Tom, Bound of Glory is one I still have to see -- I've been trying to watch as many of Hal Ashby's 1970's movies as I can recently, and that one's on my list for sure (guess Ashby and Wexler remembered each other from their work on In the Heat...). And Wexler's black & white cinematography on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is sublime. I can't get enough of that opening intro with the lamps in the college courtyard (when Burton and Taylor are making their way home over the Alex North music).

    We're in agreement for the most part on Pauline Kael. I haven't read too much of her stuff, although I will consent that she had a narrow criteria for examining films; Jonathan Rosenbaum once revealed that she only believed it was necessary to see films once, and that multiple viewings of films wouldn't enhance appreciation of them. So, she was obviously wrong there.

    It's unfortunate, also, that she often wasn't willing to embrace the works of filmmakers who had begun to change direction in their careers, i.e. Kubrick post-Dr. Strangelove, Spielberg post-Color Purple, etc. I haven't read her "Raising Kane" book yet, but yeah: she must've been wrong about charging that Mankiewicz wrote nearly all of the screenplay.

    Still, Kael was useful here and there. She was a De Palma apologist in all her days; and even though she overreached her predictions of Last Tango, I'm glad she loved it as much as she did. There used to be a website containing archives of her reviews, but apparently it's been shut down. Her capsule on Mississippi Burning was considerable, if not exactly great film criticism.

  19. Excellent review, Adam. When I last watched ItHotN, I was struck at how earnest and real Warren Oates played Sam. Arbogast on Film just posted that it is Oates' birthday today (well, yesterday now).

    While I agree the ending could have been more cinematic, I think it really reflected the reality of what society was feeling in 1967. There were advances, some of them huge, but still an uneasy undercurrent where everyone was tense and wary. Considering how Gillespie and Tibbs had ended their talk when they were unguarded and honest, discussing loneliness in their lives, I can see how neither would want to attempt a connection again so soon after such awkwardness. It felt very real to me, if not spectacular.

  20. The funny thing about Warren Oates is that he's one of those character actors whom I was never able to place until I actually saw him in a starring role. I remember seeing both In the Heat of the Night and Terrence Malick's Badlands around my preteens, and being totally oblivious to the fact that the cop in the former also played Spacek's father in the latter. When I finally saw Oates in Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, however, and made sure to remember his name, I was astonished to leearn that he was also in those other films. Once I returned to those films, I felt stupid for not having recognized him earlier! It's a shame he died so early.

    The final parting between Gillespie and Tibbs feels... sort of real to me. I guess I always thought it was odd how Jewison and Silliphant try to wrap up the whole movie -- literally -- in the last five minutes, during which Tibbs' arrest of Ralph, Ralph's confession and Tibbs' parting with Gillespie all feel incredibly rushed in order to meet the 2-hour time limit. I think this was even back before Jewison had final cut on all his films. Still, it's a minor criticism I have of an otherwise amazing film.

    Thanks for the comment, Stacia! It's always a pleasure to see you around these parts.

  21. Adam:

    I didn't know that bit of information about Pauline Kael- the business about not learning anything from seeing a movie a second time. How stupid is that? Now I have even less respect for her.

    Speaking of seeing a film for the second time, that's exactly what I did a few weeks ago with Exodus (1960) from Preminger. I recall you mentioning you wanted to see this film. Have you had the chance yet?

    Watching this a second time brought out so much more and showed how gracefully Preminger worked his way through this multi-layered story. The final scene is one of the most heartbreaking and elegant in his career.

  22. Adam:

    I think Jewison was at his best exploring human relationships, which of course, is at the center of "Heat of the Night" as well as "Cincinnati Kid." It's also what drives "Thomas Crown" - the relationship between McQueen and Dunaway. She is supposed to catch him of course, but she falls in love with him and admires his gumption. Jewison's focus on their feelings toward each other really gives the film its meaning and irony- he overcame a so-so script and made one of his most stylish films.

    If he had stayed with the exploration of human behavior, his film "The Hurricane" could have been great. This first half of the film with Denzel Washington as the title character in jail is mesmerizing and tough. Jewison gets in trouble mid-way through the film however, when his liberal views get in the way and he explores those do-gooders from Canada who will do anything to get Carter out of prison. The tone of the film moves from savage to soft and in reality becomes a tired series of clichés we've seen before, as the little people overcome the big city police. It really trivializes the film and Hurricane Carter's story.

    Maybe since Jewison is a Canadian himself, he really had a soft spot for those characters. If so, it's a shame as that robbed the film of its excellence, as those scenes were amateurishly written and poorly acted.

  23. Adam:

    As for Bound For Glory, it's Ashby's finest film by far, in my opinion. I also liked his first film, The Landlord very much, but found Coming Home to be too preachy and awkward, while Shampoo is a clumsy film without a defining point of view.

    But with Bound for Glory, Ashby delivered on all his promises. There are quiet scenes in here that remind you of John Ford, given the simplicity and honesty in which Ashby tells them. In fact, I would rate the first two-thirds of this film a near masterpiece - it's that good.

    Unfortunately, the last third boils down to a much more mundane type of film that deals with Woody Guthrie's domestic and business problems. It's watchable. but it lacks the power of the scenes on the open roads of California and other environs. Yet the overall message still remains strong. (If you look at my home page at Cinema Directives, you will see this film in my list of favorite movies.)

    Of course, Ashby had the wonderful fortune of working with Haskell Wexler as his director of photography on this film (as you said, probably some pleasant memories between the two of them from two previous Jewison films they both worked on). This is one of Wexler's two or three finest accomplishments and he deservedly won the Oscar for this work.

    Together Ashby and Wexler combined in a way rarely seen since John Ford and Winton Hoch (he photographed several of Ford's most beautiful films, yet few know his name).

    By the way, in "Bound For Glory", there is the absolute first use of Stedicam for one scene. See if you can pick it out when you watch the film.

  24. Tom, I've got Exodus lying around somewhere. Trying to find time to watch it, although since my last experience with a Preminger epic (In Harm's Way) wasn't a pleasant one, I'll probably have to devote a whole day to it!

    Jewison is, as you say, better with humanistic films than with cerebral films. Films like Fiddler on the Roof, A Soldier's Story and Agnes of God are so powerful, I think, because they're armed with such a rich, theatrical language. His other, more cerebral films like Jesus Christ Superstar or Rollerball have always struck me as interesting but slight. The one movie of his I've been dying to see is ...And Justice For All, which Blockbuster Online still refuses to mail to me for some strange reason.

    The one movie of his we differ over is The Hurricane. I like to think of it as Jewison's "flawed great film". It's far from perfect, of course: the white Canadian characters played by Liev Schrieber and Deborah Kara Unger are pretty thankless, and Dan Hedaya's arch-villain is borderline silly. But Denzel Washington is so remarkable as Carter, his relationship with Vicellous Shannon's Lesra so well-written, and the film's overall emotional effect so immense that I find myself loving the movie altogether. It's probably Jewison's last top-notch effort: his last two films, Dinner With Friends and The Statement, don't really come together very well. As we speak, I hear he's even trying to get another project with John Patrick Shanley off the ground, but that he's finding funding hard to come by because of, well... his age.

  25. Adam:

    I did like The Hurricane quite a bit until the final act. I hope I made the clear. Denzel Washington was superb and I did like the relationship with the young boy. That part of the film is well written and passionately directed by Jewison.

    I just wish he had maintained that intimacy and drive for the entire film.

  26. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!


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