Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Best Film Editing (Hal Ashby), Best Sound, and Best Writing (Stirling Silliphant). Oscar Nominee for Best Director (Norman Jewison) and Best Sound Effects.
Based on John Ball’s novel, Norman Jewison’s film still holds its own as a potent, unpretentious drama about punitive race relations in the Deep South, even though the actual story is part whodunnit & police procedural.
Stirling Silliphant’s script is filled with tight dialogue and quotable lines, but more importantly, the adaptation never exclusively favours social commentary over mystery; the two just go hand-in-hand, pushing the plot and furthering the conflicts until the finale, where the resolution is less about who killed a town’s black-friendly industrialist, but planting the first seeds of social reform.
As the now-legendary Virgil ‘They call me Mr.’ Tibbs, Sidney Poitier is a powerful force, holding his own against fiery Rod Steiger (who gained extra weight to play the town’s bigoted but savvy Sheriff Gillespie). Tibbs goes through his own a lengthy journey, first being arrested as a suspect by procedurally challenged cop Sam Wood (Warren Oates), berated by Gillespie, and then asked by his boss in Philadelphia to help solve the murder of a wealthy industrialist - a man planning to construct a factory that would’ve employed a 50/50 split of black & white workers.
Once he’s acknowledged as a cop (and a top homicide detective with forensics expertise), Tibbs’ worth is frequently challenged by his unwilling colleagues: when Gillespie feels he has the right suspect, the racial epithets fly, but when Tibbs produces evidence that inevitably exonerates the hastily nabbed man, Gillespie silently, grudgingly acknowledges Tibbs’ professionalism.
No one likes Tibbs: in the town of Sparta, he’s a thing; an anomaly in being an articulate, experienced pro who shames the local police, and evokes jealousy among the overweight and cliquish boys for probably earning more in a week than they rake in during a month.
While Gillespie continuously reconciles his racism with accepting Tibbs as a good man, Tibbs’ own rage against the town seethes until he’s literally brought into the symbolic epicenter of Southern Black oppression: a working cotton plantation, owned and operated by rival town bigwig Endicott (the always snide Larry Gates).
During their drive to the plantation, Gillespie quips to his silent partner, “None of this for you, eh Tibbs?” referring to the rows of poor blacks toiling in the heat. As they approach the Georgian mansion’s front door, they pass a ceramic Sambo stable boy, and are met by a black butler who takes them into the greenhouse where Endicott is cultivating orchids.
Most critics highlight the subsequent slap that Tibbs returns to Endicott, but they tend to skirt over the build-up and finale to the lengthy scene which explains Endicott’s physical strike. Firstly, Tibbs becomes increasingly sickened by Endicott’s lecture, regarding blacks as orchids which need cultivation, until they’re ready to be freed. Secondly, Endicott regards Tibbs as more than uppity: the black detective is a symbol of an assertive wave of change that threatens a tradition which is core to Endicott’s culture.
When Tibbs strikes back, it was an important moment where a black character symbolically said ‘enough is enough’ on screen in a Hollywood production, but the scene’s coda is also worth noting: the black butler quietly shakes his head, discretely confirming Endicott’s culture as terminally sick, and when left alone, the wealthy man wimpers, because he realizes his tradition may not survive into a another generation, and he's completely lost face. As he says to Tibbs, grinding his teeth in rage, “There was a time when I could’ve had you shot,”and Endicott realizes that time is now over.
After Tibbs' reflexive slap-back, he becomes a danger to everyone around him (even Gillespie knows he can’t fully fend off the rednecks for long), but the two cops are now on equal footing: they need each other to finish the case, but they’ve also exposed their own raw emotions, which Gillespie uses to prove Tibbs is ‘just like the rest of us.’
Two subsequent scenes create a bond between the two combative cops:
The first occurs at the train station, after the mayor (William Schallert) convinces Gillespie Tibbs must stay to ensure the town doesn’t lose potential jobs. While Gillespie initially comes humbly to his unwilling partner, he counters Tibbs’ immediate rejection by challenging him to act on his repressed impulse to not just solve the case, but prove to the backward boobs he’s stuck with that he was always right, and is as superior as his ego believes.
Jewison uses space within the framing and music score to slowly show how each man does the right thing, albeit with absolute reluctance, if not distaste: the actors move slowly, yell, physically recede, and amble towards the car separately before heading back to town.
The second key scene is a simple living room exchange where Gillespie admits he’s a lonely man with no wife, no child, and in a town that hates him for not playing along. The dialogue, reportedly improvised, is straightforward, and it’s as heartfelt as it can be, coming from a proud but exhausted sheriff, and a reserved but quietly sympathetic Tibbs.
Jewison also directed scenes with allowances for the actors. Lee Grant’s role as the industrialist’s widow isn’t big, but she has a great first scene where Tibbs informs her of her husband’s murder. She turns her back to the camera, and her torment manifests through slightly twisted physical gestures. Grant, Steiger, and Poitier are powerful forces, yet their energy is restricted to opportune moments and words, so there’s no scene-chewing (which is quite a feat, given Steiger and Grant would go into hysterics in the sleazy horror films The Amityville Horror and Damien: Omen II, respectively).
SPOILER ALERT (FINALE)
And there’s little directorial touches which are often overlooked in favour of the performances: in the film’s opening, the sleazy diner cook Ralph (Anthony James) uses an elastic band to snap a fly to death; at the end, when he describes to Gillespie the moment he killed the industrialist, Ralph snaps the elastic, telling audiences his regard for any human life is no different than a fly – to kill a fly or a man was merely taking advantage of an opportunity, not a moral call.
END OF SPOILER
Visually, the style is docu-drama, and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is appropriately grainy, with fluctuating focal planes within passive shots, and colours that approach a burnt-out quality. Hal Ashby’s editing is sharp, counterpointing wide shots of distant action with massive close-ups and frantic POVs in place of kinetic montages.
Quincy Jones’ score is surprisingly sparse (maybe a half hour, excluding source and title songs), but beautifully evocative of rustic, raw emotions in Sparta, and the constant threat of violence by combining a modest orchestra, electric guitar, and exotic rhythmic effects. Jewison often chose to emphasize location sounds in place of score, which ensured tense scenes such as the plantation slap played as cinema verite than classical Hollywood – perhaps a key ingredient as to why the film clicked with audiences worldwide, and the Oscars clique.
Other films of the period dealing with race relations include Arthur Penn's steamy The Chase (1966), Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown (1967), and William Wyler's The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970).
Norman Jewison’s next film paired him with cinematographer Wexler again, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), whereas Silliphant would revisit Southern social unrest in The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) before beginning a lengthy association with producer / director Irwin Allen in 1972 with The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Sidney Poitier would reprise Virgil Tibbs in UA’s two sequels, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971), whereas Ball’s characters would re-emerge in a series of TV movies and a long-running series between 1988-1995.
Composer Quincy Jones would score the first sequel, and carry over some of the raw blues sounds in In Cold Blood, also scored in 1967, and arguably his masterwork.
Hal Ashby would edit 5 films for Jewison – The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair [M] (1968), and Gaily Gaily (1969) before embarking on his own directorial career, making classics such as Harold and Maude (1971), and Being There (1979).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan