Tag Archives: Sidney Poitier

In the Heat of the Night (1967) Movie Retro Review By John Walsh

In the Heat of the Night

Director: Norman Jewison
Writers: Stirling Silliphant (screenplay), John Ball (based on a novel by)
Stars: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates 

Everybody has that particular film, or maybe even several films, that they go back to time and again. The type you were maybe introduced to by a parent or grandparent, that you can endlessly quote lines from. In the Heat of the Night is definitely one of those films for me. I’ll regularly throw in “one hundred and sixty two dollar and thirty nine cents, well boy!” to a random conversation between my mother or uncle and it ignites a reenactment of that early, memorable scene. 

The performances of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are one of the major reasons that I love this film as much as I do. They’re both outstanding for very different reasons. Hell, they’re playing polar opposite characters, so they should be. And yet, despite they’re difference in personality, upbringing and race, in the midst of the rather racist southern setting, their chemistry together is incredible. 

It’s a crime drama that revolves around the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, where a prominent industrialist has been murdered. That’s the premise for the films classic opening, with the overtures of Ray Charles setting the tone. Said industrialist is a white man, “just about the most important white man” they’ve got around those parts and of course they need a black scapegoat to pin it on. Officer Wood (Warren Oates), spots Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) sitting in the train station, in the early hours of the morning and deduces that he’s clearly guilty. Because, well, he’s black, isn’t it?

That sets up the aforementioned scene, with Virgil’s wage being revealed, but more importantly it introduces Mr. Tibbs to Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger). The condescension is ripping out of him during their initial meeting, with raised voices, mockery and accusations being thrown around. It’s an explosive, entertaining and impeccably acted scene and you get a measure for the two primary protagonists.

Virgil is an intelligent, sharply dressed man that allows his captors just enough rope to hang themselves with before throwing a dagger into their hearts and revealing his profession as a top homicide detective from Philadelphia. Gillespie is a more impulsive man, quick to anger and frustration. He never strikes me as proper racist, but he’s on a moral precipice, unwilling to question his corrupt, racist bosses, for fear of losing his job. Tibbs’ eventual decision to stay and help solve the murder most definitely acts as the catalyst for the Chief regaining his moral compass and a tinge of humanity. 

Mr. Tibbs is an unimpeachable figure and representative of the new brand of policing, with a greater emphasis on science and clever deduction. He’s a walking moral compass and whilst he quietly brings Gillespie round to his side and de-bigofies him, he also has two innocents released from wrongful imprisonment. The first, a convict who goes on the run and the second, Officer Wood, who’s a bit of a sleekit, peeping tom that’s taken to spying on an underage girl, Dolores (Quentin Dean). He lies about his route on the night of the murder, embarrassed he’ll have his dirty secret revealed and subsequently gets temporarily locked up for his troubles.  

Whilst I love the dialogue in the main, (not so much the offensive racial slurs mind), the interactions between Tibbs and Gillespie and the way the former determinedly seeks out justice like a mad man, with little to no care for his own wellbeing. I can’t deny there is flaws within the film. The editing isn’t perfect by any means, it’s a bit clunky in parts and there’s whole sequences go nowhere. Like the previously mentioned convict going on an extended escape attempt, for example; the unnecessary meetings between Virgil and Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant) and even his trip to and slapping session with Endicott (Larry Gates).

I can see why they’re in there, it adds some meat to the characters, in the Endicott scene, some shock and further proof that Virgil is an equal in a deeply racist town, but not so much to the story or flow of the film.

The ending comes on rather abruptly, but in fairness, it mostly makes sense. The longer Tibbs stays, seeking answers, equally through a desire to prove his superiority and for justice, the more ire he draws from the white locals, in powerful positions. They’re fearful about skeletons being discovered in their metaphorical closets, most notably the factory being built, the financial benefits it’ll bring them and the implications it may have. This makes him a marked man and he’s even cornered at one stage by Purdy, the brother of Dolores, for having the audacity to be present during her interrogation.

His powers of deduction and detective work are flawless too. He smartly recognises the significance of Dolores, her seeking of an abortion, the secrecy surrounding the payment and that leads him to the greasy, peripheral player that is Ralph (Anthony James). The cafe scene with ‘Fowl Owl on the Prowl’ and the tense stand-off that follows is another personal highlight. It’s not a great surprise when he’s revealed as the killer because he looks like such an oddity of man, but I can imagine it would’ve surprised a few back in the day, because there was no hint of him being involved. 

This is one of my all-time favourite films. It’s got a bizarre blend of drama and comedy. The dialogue snaps out as if it were natural, the acting is magnificent all round, but Poitier and Steiger are the clear standouts. The latter won an Academy Award for his performance and it’s not difficult to see why. He’s a lonely figure that transforms as the film progresses. He evokes hilarity in parts and pity in other. Sidney is one of the greatest actors in history. He’s immense. The score is timeless too and an absolute classic from Quincy Jones. The visuals work for the most part without being perfect, but overall it’s just a timeless classic that I’ve seen dozens of times. 

It explores the racial divides from the 60s perfectly, shows the ridiculousness of it all with Virgil being a well educated and superior man to the majority, if not all of the white people and it perfectly conveys the clash of old ways within police work with the modern standards we see today. 

I can’t really recommend it enough. 

Rating: 4.5/5

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Stir Crazy (1980) Movie Retro Review by John Walsh

STIR CRAZY

Director: Sidney Poitier
Writer: Bruce Jay Friedman
Stars: Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Georg Stanford Brown

I thought I’d take a little trip back nigh on forty years and review one of my all-time favourite comedy movies. This one has a special place in my heart too because it was the first time I ever had the pleasure of seeing Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor on the screen together. Mix that with another favourite of mine, Sidney Poitier, popping up in the directors chair and it’s a match made in heaven. Of course, I’m talking about Stir Crazy, the classic from 1980.

I’m always of the opinion that a director should, if possible, try to really set the tone of what he’s looking to accomplish in a film within the opening five to tens minutes. Stir Crazy does this with a highly memorable double opening scene. It quickly introduces us to Harry Monroe (Richard Pryor); at this point a waiter, who’s stash of marijuana ends up making its way into the guests salads with absolute carnage and hilarity ensuing. In particular, the stoned innuendo between the priest, woman and elderly semi-deaf lady was a highlight. If that wasn’t a perfect start then Skip Donahue’s (Gene Wilder) introduction directly afterwards ensures perfection. The characters complete lack of grip on reality and flaw of seemingly seeing the best in everyone gets perfectly conveyed in the bar brawl that erupts.

Amongst the craziness of the stoned guests, pliers being painfully and inappropriately used by small Hispanic men however is the early spark that propels the film forward. The two men are newly out of work, both having being fired, and they decide, stupidly, to head for Hollywood to pursue their dreams of stardom, leaving New York behind. Skip is a film writer you see and Harry an actor, so off they go to pursue the American dream. It’s established early though, that these are two guys who have no luck for bad luck and they’re soon implicated in a bank heist after two armed robbers assume their places as mascots in an Arizona bank (they were doing small jobs on the way to earn quick cash). This bit of misfortune is soon exacerbated when they’re hastily tried and sentenced to a 125 years in prison. Bedlam, panic, disbelief and sheer shock ensue. Skip tells the judge to sit back down after his judgement and Harry, on the verge of tears, ponders being an ‘old man’ upon release (remember they were sentence to 125 years)

This is when the film really gets going and there’s so many genuinely hilarious moments that occur upon their arrival and stay at the prison. Skip almost immediately has a mental breakdown and begins riding Deputy Warden Wilson’s (Craig T. Nelson) back like a jockey, Harry transforms into Bruce Lee and starts letting everyone know that he’s “bad” and “don’t take no shit”. There’s an array of side characters that pop up during the extended (the vast majority) prison segment of the film, a few of the more memorable ones such as; Grossberber (Erland Van Lidth), Rory Schultebrand (George Stanford Brown), Warden Walter (Barry Corbin), Meredith (JoBeth Williams) and Jesus Ramirez (Miguel Ángel Suárez) are all perfectly cast, with excellent chemistry, play off each other well and only help to add to the hilarity the two protagonists bring.

Like I said, there’s many funny moments in there, but none comes close to the good ten minute mental and physical onslaught that Skip goes through upon Warden Walter discovering his unlikely propensity for being a star rodeo rider. This of course gives the Warden an idea. He’ll volunteer Donahue for the annual prison contest coming up and make a mint off of his inevitable success. Skip has other ideas however, sensing a chance to gain some perks for him and his fellow inmates, he decides to hold off in the face of ever growing adversity and torture. The result of which is possibly one of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen put to film. He tries to project an aura of normality to his taskmasters, whilst internally he’s absolutely gone. What makes it so funny though, other than the man being an absolute lunatic, is that he actually holds up to the punishment and even a night sharing a cell with the widely feared Grossberger.

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor are at their comedic best here with both delivering pitch perfect performances that effectively carry the entire film throughout. What really makes their palpable chemistry all the more remarkable is the fact that they rarely if ever actually socialised outside of filming. With them having starred in so many classic and very funny films, there’ll always be a degree of debate, I’m sure, about which was their best together, but for me there is no debate. Stir Crazy is the clear winner. I love Silverstreak and See No Evil, Hear No Evil too, but this tops them. It has a little bit of everything; humour, romance, action, brilliant dialogue, weird and interesting characters, and even a tense prison escape.

Now, I think it’s obvious, given that I’ve spent 90% of this review waxing lyrically about it, that I’m going to highly recommend Stir Crazy. I was actually surprised to see it only has a 6.8/10 on IMDb, which perhaps just proves how subjective a subject movies actually are. I think it’s slightly better than that rating would imply, though certainly not perfect by any means, and I would suggest if you’re a fan of comedy and have somehow missed this classic to give it a watch for sure. It’ll certainly not disappoint.

Rating: 4/5