The passing of ace cinematographer Haskell Wexler earlier in 2016 reminds one that the most notable visuals in a film are not always those which buttress already stellar offerings, but those which almost singlehandedly lift entombed, waxy screenplays up from the dregs in the first place. Case in point, his influential, remarkably punchy, wonderfully filthy work enlivening In the Heat of the Night, where he saves a film from an enervating screenplay precisely by suggesting enervating Southern oppression in the way a parade of declamatory verbiage never could.
Now, Wexler’s cinematography doesn’t quite elucidate the stuffy, hotheaded Southern summer the diegesis suggests, but the noirish grotto of the film’s mise-en-scene creates a satisfyingly pungent texture unmoored from the stultifying cleanliness of most earlier ’60s films from the Hollywood machine. In the Heat of the Night’s progenitors are thankfully not the programmatic, squeaky-clean message pictures of old, circa Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement. Wexler borrows instead from the more grisly, cinema verite style that would flower in the early ’70s. It lends the otherwise dreary, preprogrammed screenplay an air of sinewy, Southern dread and pre-’70s malarial ennui that cuts through the message movie politics with vituperative veracity and a scathing instability that mimics black Philadelphia Detective Virgil Tibbs’ (Sidney Poitier) discomfiting unease in the time-warped Southern white cotton fields and the even more pallid, fleshy, pudgy white men who domineer over them.
It is Tibbs’ misfortune that he is visiting the South to see his mother at exactly the same time as a wealthy white Chicago factory magnate is murdered in the town of Sparta, Mississippi. Initially picked up for the murder, Tibbs is eventually coerced to help solve the crime when the police chief played by Rod Steiger disabuses himself of his more overt racism and positions himself in the middle of Tibbs and the more vehemently opposed townsfolk. As a work of visual screenplay-translation, director Norman Jewison’s film is a visual shake-up, filled with surreptitious imagery that borders, fittingly, on what would become the exploitation style of the 1970s. The most progressive thing about In the Heat of the Night is not necessarily its politics but its rough-hewn framing style.
In Poitier and Steiger, as well, the film has a sonorous two-fer of sublimely contested performances, with Poitier’s deep-throated, sweat-caked rejection of authority rattling around us with his frustration at having to play the white man’s game to prove his worth in Sparta at all. Steiger is a different story, hardly restraining himself from his usual verbal ticks and lip-smacking, overly-calibrated physical affectations. But it’s a scorcher of a performance nonetheless, dynamically destabilizing our conception of a stifled Southern authority figure finally realizing that announcing his agency may require dissuading himself from sitting pretty with the whites he is tasked with protecting. Insofar as there is a sense of combat and contestation in the air of In the Heat Of the Night that coagulates into a choleric hot-bed of racial disquiet, it’s almost entirely the work of the film style and these two performances.
A disquiet the film’s screenplay is calibrated to setting to stun, rather than kill, unfortunately. Compared to, for instance, the vastly more meddling likes of Cassavetes’ Shadows or Fuller’s Shock Corridor (not to mention Fuller’s wonderful later lamentation of racism White Dog), In the Heat of the Night is still mostly beholden to the safe ground of its screenplay by Stirling Silliphant (adapted from the book of the same name by John Ball). Despite what the sharply pitched images may tell you, the script, the cement of most non avant-garde works of film, is focused on exculpating and congratulating white audiences for their capacity to rise above the shackled-to-the-past Southern bigots.
Now, compared to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the other 1967 Sidney Poitier vehicle, In the Heat of the Night is a radical treatise on the fundamental incapability of white people to understand their wrong-doing, but then so are most films, even those nominally devoid of racial overtones at all. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner aside, though, Heat of the Night’s panacea to racial discomfort is still alarmingly reducible to emphasizing respectable, competent black men who teach those whites willing to listen to overcome their bigotry. Whatever value Heat proposes to white audiences, its choir-preaching mode is primarily dedicated to reaffirming the white, Northern middle classes that they are capable of a progress that deluded Southern gargoyles are fundamentally oblivious to.
Steiger’s character, in comparison to the well-to-do white couple in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, at least breathes like an actual human rather than a dressed-up interlocutor to spit back the white elite’s own essential self-drive to overcome their own prejudices. But that does little to redress Heat’s problematic fascination with its own social value, as well as its cloying emphasis on “respectable” African-Americans as opposed to a more vocal, contested depiction of black community. At the very least, Poitier ensures his character never becomes a mouthpiece for capitalistic success and the possibilities America affords to worthy African-Americans, the very role he was saddled with so often in his career. But In the Heat of the Night is classical liberal cinema: social fires are personified in individualistic solutions that necessarily salve the conflagration of reality with the penicillin of progress driven not by contested social action but by rosy individuals who simply learn to listen and love each other. It’s tough love in this film, but still too rosy to be meaningful.
The film’s failures as legitimate social tract wipe away a fair portion of the filmmaking’s notably unnerving style, not a problem if the film had at least functioned more ceremoniously in the “from the headlines” crime thriller mode it so desperately insists on. Wexler helps immensely here, as does editor Hal Ashby (on his way to a notable directorial career) who affords a few scenes a suitable air of mania. The finale, though, is faintly embarrassing as both mystery and racial politics, suggesting that the real turmoil was not the product of institutional racism but petty theft. That this happens to slash to tatters the film’s perusal of modern racism is a problem, but I cannot tell whether it is more embarrassing on its own accord or when buttressed by the fact that the film doesn’t even seem to realize its own self-sabotage.