Friday, April 18, 2014

The Fine Art of Sequential Credits :: Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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"I got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead!"
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I just love how that opening sequence metaphorically sets the viewer up for In the Heat of the Night, with Virgil Tibbs hitting town slowly and quietly but with the force of a runaway freight train that will knock the sultry right out of the sleepy and unsuspecting denizens of Sparta, Mississippi.

Produced and financed by Walter Mirisch, directed with a stylish flare by Norman Jewison -- aided and abetted greatly by the out-of-box thinking of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the editing of Hal Ashby, and the hammer and anvil of Quincy Jones score, what the film accomplishes as a seething social commentary is storied and bona fide from concept to execution. And when you look up those names involved, these results shouldn't be all that surprising; and yet the film not only accomplished its lofty goals but over-achieved to something even greater than this. And the fact that the Academy Awards, where it swept most of the major categories -- beating out Mike Nichols The Graduate and Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, was postponed for two days due to the assassination of Dr. King is a sad coda to their efforts.

To me, one of the best things about In the Heat of the Night is so obvious you might not even see it, but, remember, framing this unflinching look at ingrained prejudices is one crackerjack murder-mystery being unraveled and stitched back together for our entertainment. Pretty amazing when considering screenwriter Sterling Silliphant's other credits, where subtext and subtlety go up in smoke (The Towering Inferno), then drowned upside down (The Poseidon Adventure), before being torn apart by a herd of stampeding killer bees (The Swarm).

I'd also like to shine a spotlight on the sound-design of Walter Goss and James Richard. For, when I watched this again via my new TV and BluRay player, I could hear every muscle movement made by Chief Gillispie's jowls while he chomps and cracks his gum. Add in the hum and glow of all that neon and the thrum of the insects and you can almost feel the oppressive heat and humidity and smell the sweat emanating from the screen.

Then again, you can probably just chuck all of that aside and just watch two really good actors spark off of each other like a couple pieces of flint for a couple of hours if you're so inclined. And on top of Potier and Steiger, you've got Warren Oates, William Schallert, Peter Whitney, Scott Wilson and Anthony James taking turns at stealing scenes. 

Thus and so, whatever reasons you choose, I encourage you all to watch or revisit this film. Because no matter what angle you choose to watch from, the results are consistently ah-mazing.

Other Points of Interest:

In the Heat of the Night (1967) The Mirisch Corporation :: United Artists / P: Walter Mirisch / D: Norman Jewison / W: Stirling Silliphant, John Ball (novel) / C: Haskell Wexler / E: Hal Ashby / M: Quincy Jones / S: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, William Schallert, Peter Whitney

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