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In the Heat of the Night - Ray Charles

Of the three films that Sidney Poitier is nowadays mostly remembered for, all released in 1967 (see last post), "In the Heat of the Night" is the one that is least dated and resonates the loudest today. Poitier plays a Homicide Detective from Philadelphia who is arrested while sitting in a railway station waiting room in Sparta, Mississippi while awaiting a train connection. He is arrested as a potential suspect for a murder that has just been committed in the town, but although his innocence is soon established, circumstances conspire to require his continued involvement in the investigation, although he'd rather be on his way home.

The film, directed by Norman Jewison, is suffused with the contrast between small-town southern prejudices and the sophisticated, modern, urban approach of the North East US as personified by the tensions between the Sparta's residents and visiting detective, Virgil Tibbs, respectively. In the middle of this is the Sparta's Police Chief Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger, a not unreasonable man (if one can be a racist and a not unreasonable man) but an outsider, and lonely individual, a man who's own experience of isolation gives him the potential to change.

In perhaps the most telling scene in the film, he has invited Tibbs back to his house where he lives alone, and tells him he's the first visitor to his home. Drunk, he says, "I got no wife, I got no kids, ....I got a town that don’t want me" and for a moment he seems to be bonding with Tibbs. But when he asks Tibbs, "Don't you get just a little lonely?" and Tibbs replies "No lonelier than you, man", he reverts to type and snarls "Whoa now, don't get smart black boy, I don't need it, no pity thank you, no thank you."

In the last scene, the murder solved, Gillespie drives Tibbs to the railway station in his police car and, significantly, carries his suitcase onto the platform for him. They shake hands and make a perfunctory goodbye. Then, as Tibbs climbs the steps up to the railway carriage, Gillespie turns back, looks him in the eye, and says "Virgil, you take care, you hear?" Tibbs pauses, and his face slowly breaks into a smile, and he says "yeah", then they both smile before turning away to continue their separate lives.

The overriding metaphor of the film is emblazoned in its title, the stifling Southern heat which seems at any moment to burst into flame, and must have felt very current in the climate of civil rights unrest which exploded in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King just six months after the film's release.

In another classic scene from the movie, Tibbs is slapped in the face by an influential local plantation owner, whereupon he immediately slaps him back. In 1967, this was an extremely shocking moment, acting out the dilemma of sixties civil rights leaders: the choice between King's non-violent opposition and the more militant resistance as advocated by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and others. While coming down somewhere between the two, Poitier, as Tibbs, asserts that the important thing is not to give in while retaining your dignity which he does with a coolness seldom bettered on screen.

Quincy Jones, who wrote the music score for In the Heat of the Night", first met Ray Charles when they both lived in Seattle before either had any musical success. Jones was 14 and Charles was 16 and they remained friends throughout their careers. Here Jones' astute composition perfectly captures the feel of the hot, sultry Alabama night of the film's beginning, and the smouldering vocal by Charles makes you feel he's so hot that to sing every word is an effort. The sax intro is lazily simmering too, but it's the sweaty electric organ fills by a young Billy Preston that are the backbone of the record.

If you haven't seen the film, download it and watch it today. On second thoughts, if you have seen it, watch it again. You won't be disappointed.


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