Friday, August 11, 2017

Notes on IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)

Films have been my passion ever since I was in grade school.  Family members and childhood friends will attest to that.  When I was in high school, I would take my little transistor radio with me on the day the Oscar nominations were announced.  Back then, the nominations were announced early in the afternoon Pacific Time, not in the pre-dawn hours as they are now.  I have some notes on the Oscar winner for Best Picture and Best Actor of 1967.  The movie was IN THE HEAT OF NIGHT, a murder mystery and race drama starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger (Oscar winner).  It was directed by Norman Jewison.  I write my notes as someone who remembers that time.  I was a high school student in Watts, the South Central L.A. community still healing from days of the Watts Riots that started on August 11, 1965.  Police agitation and racial inequality were elements in that rebellion.  My notes are in response to an article I just read on Twitter from a British site I like and read regularly -- GUARDIAN FILM.  On August 10th, it posted an article that included some comments about Jewison's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.
One of the other five films nominated for Best Picture was BONNIE AND CLYDE.  The GUARDIAN FILM article is called "Bored of blockbusters?  Why Hollywood needs another Bonnie and Clyde moment."  The article, written by Danny Leigh, can probably also be found if you log onto theguardian.com/film.
BONNIE AND CLYDE was released in August 1967.  Because this is a special anniversary year of its release, that's why its stars, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, appeared on the Oscars earlier this year to present the award for Best Picture of 2016.  The winner was MOONLIGHT, not LA LA LAND.  And the mistake was not theirs.  The responsible party was so busy live-tweeting his selfies with celebrities backstage that he was not paying attention to his job.  He handed the stars the wrong envelope. To me, this was proof that live-tweeting can be in the same lane as texting while driving.  You're not paying full attention to what's in progress in front of you.
Columnist Danny Leigh wrote that BONNIE AND CLYDE, based on the true story of two 1930s gun-toting bank robbers, was a "transformative crime movie."  No argument from me on that point.  The movie challenged the dying production code with its shoot-out violence.  Beatty, producer and star, was making a statement.  He wanted the gunfire volume to be louder and jarring.  Like what George Stevens did in SHANE.  Where conservative Hollywood monitors hated about the screen violence from the two young characters financially kicked to the curb by The Great Depression at a time when banks were foreclosing on homes, young working class American men were being drafted into the Vietnam War.  A young generation saw the war and heard similar gunfire every day on the network evening news.  The ratings board was upset with the make-believe violence onscreen, meanwhile the 1960s was a most turbulent and tragically violent decade in real life.  President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed while in office.  The Vietnam War was extremely unpopular and had divided a nation.  I was a high school kid who was afraid that war would drag on and I'd be drafted.  Uncle Sam seemed to favor scooping up black and brown males from low-income communities for service.

Jack L. Warner was still the head of Warner Brothers and the only one of the big Hollywood movie studio bosses who still had his position.  He didn't have any faith and BONNIE AND CLYDE and wanted to release it to drive-in movie theaters, according to Beatty.  That struck me as ironic because, in its heyday, Warner Brothers was famous for gangster movies and crime stories starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson as machine gun-toting hoodlums.

BONNIE AND CLYDE opened.  What stuffy male critics didn't get, young moviegoers did.  The movie scored an out-of-the park home run with three bases loaded.  It was a big box office hit, the soundtrack was a hit on the Billboard charts with selections getting some radio airplay, and the costumes by Theadora Van Runkle -- especially those designed for Faye Dunaway -- triggered a fashion trend that I recall seeing in Los Angeles department stores.  Then, the controversial movie that Jack L. Warner had little love for, got 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parson, winner), two for Best Supporting Actor and Best Director.

In his article, Danny Leigh reports that a noted white male film journalist categorized the success of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT as "...somewhere between irrelevance and obstacle."  He called it a "safe" movie.

We black moviegoers didn't see IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT as "safe." We saw it as rebellious, especially in one famous scene.  Keep in mind that Sidney Poitier, a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, was present at the 1963 March on Washington.  He was up there on the platform during Dr. King's now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  In 1964, Poitier made history when he won the Best Actor Oscar for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.  Nonetheless, he was reluctant to do IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT because it would film down South.  He and Harry Belafonte had been racially harassed down South during their Civil Rights activism.  Poitier accepted the role but faced racial discrimination from hotels.  Deluxe hotels would not book black guests.  Jewison had to take care securing lodging for Mr. Poitier.  President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1964 which basically allowed black Americans the freedom to vote.  But interracial marriage was still illegal in several American states.  That would change in 1967 thanks to a Supreme Court ruling.

When Detective Tibbs gets slapped by that racist white man and he slaps him back -- that moment took us black folks to church!  That was a significant movie moment full of symbolic social relevance for us African Americans.
In the scene after that one, the town mayor -- also a racist -- casually remarks to the police chief Steiger played that the previous police chief would've shot the black detective dead for that slap and claimed self-defense.  Think of national news stories within the last few years here in U.S. in which an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a non-black cop who claimed "I feared for my life."

The live telecast in which IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture aired later than scheduled.  The Academy Awards, for the first and only time in Oscar history, had been postponed.  The Oscars had been postponed out of national respect for the recent funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King.  The Civil Rights leader had been shot and killed on April 4th, 1968.  The Oscar show, originally scheduled for April 8th, was held April 10th instead.

I'd disagree with Peter Biskind if he feels that IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is "irrelevant."  The nominees for Best Picture of 1967 were:
BONNIE AND CLYDE
THE GRADUATE
GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
DOCTOR DOOLITTLE

Besides being passionate about film art, I'm also a veteran entertainment news reporter and film reviewer who worked on network TV and contributed to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY Magazine.


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