erik lundegaard

“On m’appelle Monsieur Tibbs!”

Watched “In the Heat of the Night” again after reading Mark Harris’ much-recommended book, “Pictures at a Revolution,” about the inspiration, gestation and production of, and subsequent reaction to, the five nominees for best picture at the 1967 Academy Awards.

When I first heard about the book I wondered why Harris chose ’67 and its mix of old Hollywood (“Dr. Doolittle”; “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”) and new (“Bonnie and Clyde”; “The Graduate”), with “In the Heat of the Night” coming down the middle to win. Seemed arbitrary. Seemed too close to the period John Gregory Dunne covers in “The Studio.” Why not pick, say, 1970, where the difference between old Hollywood (“Love Story”; “Airport”), and new (“M*A*S*H”; “Five Easy Pieces”), feels even starker? And with “Patton” still coming down the middle to win?

In the Heat of the NightBut it makes sense. The inspiration for these five movies began in 1963, or earlier, and the cultural difference between ’63 and ’67 is huge. Particularly in racial matters. Particularly in youth matters. Harris’ period also includes the heady influence of the nouvelle vague (when it was nouvelle) as well as the end of the production code. The influences are too fascinating to ignore.

(On the other hand: 1970 would’ve given you Altman and Nicholson, and an American culture in which the anti-war movie “M*A*S*H” outperformed the war biopic “Patton” at the box office. But still...)

At the moment I’m simply dealing with the difference between 2001 and now. Eight years ago I wrote a little something about “In the Heat of the Night,” and reading it over today, it lacks, let’s say, a largeness of spirit. But it’s not necessarily wrong.

My big problem with “Heat” this viewing? The dance is too extreme.

There’s a murder. Tibbs is pulled in and charged for it. He didn’t do it, and he can prove he didn’t do it, and he’s a homicide detective from Philly who knows more than these crackers ever will about police work. So how do you get him to stay in Mississippi to help, when he’s called “boy” and “nigger” and he’s arrested him for being black at the train station? In Mississippi? Hell, they filmed in Sparta, Illinois because Sidney Poitier didn’t want to set foot in Mississippi—and you can’t blame him. So how do you get Virgil Tibbs to stay there?

Here’s the dance:

1. You must stay! Tibbs is ordered to help by his Philadelphia superiors.
2. No, you must go! Gillespie captures suspect no. 1 (Harvey) and dismisses Tibbs. (Even, briefly, arrests him.)
3. No, you must stay! Colbert’s widow wants Tibbs on the case or she’ll move her factory elsewhere.
4. No, you must go! After Tibbs slaps Endicott (back).
5. Really, you must go! B-grade KKK chases Tibbs and Gillespie captures suspect no. 2 (Sam Wood).
6. Why are you still here? Gillespie and Tibbs learn of Purdy’s pregnancy, which leads to Tibbs solving the case.

Basically you have a two-hour dance between one intent and one reluctant partner. But they keep changing roles. There’s rarely a moment when both are reluctant—because that would end the dance—and, after a time, the lack of stability feels absurd.

I would’ve liked more of Tibbs in the black community, too—which they cut—as well as another scene between Tibbs and Endicott. Not sure what it would entail. “I know you didn’t do this. But I know what you did do. Everyone knows.” Something.

You could actually remake this movie today—without the racial element. Blue state vs. red state. It would work. There’s always a divide in this country. We’re too big not to have a divide.

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Posted at 09:38 AM on Wed. May 27, 2009 in category Movies  
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