cinema

In the Heat of the Night: film (1967) and novel (1965)

In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, and picked up another four: Best Actor (Rod Steiger as police chief Gillespie), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. It lost Best Director to The Graduate, and also lost Best Sound Effects to The Dirty Dozen.

The other Best Picture nominees were Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (which of course also starred Sydney Poitier). The only one I have seen (I think) is The Graduate. In IMDB ratings of all 1967 films, In the Heat of the Night ranks 7th on one system and 14th on the other. Six films beat it in both systems: The Jungle Book, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, The Dirty Dozen, Bonnie and Clyde and You Only Live Twice. Apart from The Graduate, I have also seen The Jungle Book and You Only Live Twice. From 1967, I have also seen the first Casino Royale, Half a Sixpence, Who’s Minding the Mint and the Joseph Strick Ulysses. I am a bit mystified by IMDB's love for The Jungle Book, which I remember as average Disney with implicit racism which surely would not pass muster today. On the other hand, I have good if vague memories of The Graduate and You Only Live Twice, and the first Casino Royale is at least fun. Here's a trailer for In The Heat of the Night.

This is the first murder mystery to win the Oscar for Best Picture. (Unless you count Hamlet.) The twist is that the murder takes place in a bigoted Southern town, and a black detective from Philadephia who happens to be passing is brought in to solve the crime. I have to say that I did not especially warm to it. I watched it first on Eurostar after three tiring days in London, and then tried it again flying home after a tiring weekend in Glasgow, so my energy was not at its highest, but I must record that it failed to really grab me, and I'm putting it a touch below the halfway mark of my rankings, ahead of On the Waterfront (which also features Rod Steiger) but behind Grand Hotel.

We have one returnee from a previous Oscar-winning film - Rod Steiger, who was nominated as Best Supporting Actor in On The Waterfront, where he pays Marlon Brando's older brother (despite being younger), and won the Best Actor award this year for his performance as Gillespie, the police chief.

I normally run through the aspects of these films in order, from the things I liked least to the things I liked most. In this case, the basic problem is that a successful detective story requires you to have distinct characters who are interesting enough that you care who is the actual murderer. I did not reach that point here, in either of my two viewings. This is a film about white men with harsh accents yelling at each other, and occasionally being thrown into jail, or taking a break from yelling at each other to yell at the black guy. The plot is fairly simple, but I actually found it difficult to follow. Though I was impressed by the cutting-edge tech used to record the murderer's evental confession.

There are odd bits of cinematography that jolted me out of willing suspension of disbelief. Here's one - a murder suspect is attempting to flee across state lines from Mississippi to Arkansas. What's wrong with this picture? The sun is on the right, and Arkansas is west of Mississippi, so that means the sun is firmly in the north. (Not to mention the fact that the nearest bridges to the real Sparta, Mississippi, are two and a half hours' drive away, so the police chief is well outside his jurisdiction.)

It's a film that doesn't have a lot of space for women either; the three female characters are the Grieving Widow (Lee Grant), the Town Slut (Quentin Dean) and, a little more interesting, the Town Abortionist (Beah Richards), but none of them gets an awful lot to do; the Grieving Widow does at least insist that the black guy should be kept on the case. Of course, that's still three more speaking female characters than in Lawrence of Arabia (the film, that is; the original book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, has several well-characterised female camels).

On the other hand, you do have to admit that this is the first Oscar-winning film since Gone With the Wind to tackle race, and the first at all to be on the right side of the issue. This is largely (though not entirely - see above re Beah Richards, and there are others as well) carried by the superb performance of Sydney Poitier, as Virgil Tibbs, the Californian detective who is dragged unwillingly into a tacky murder committed by tacky people in a tacky town, and builds an uneasy and unsatisfactory relationship with the police chief.

He has the single best line of the film:
Gillespie: "Virgil"? That's a funny name for a nigger boy to come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?
Tibbs: They call me MISTER TIBBS!

And he gets another iconic scene (watch to the end), where incidentally the butler is played by Jester Hairston, writer of the Christmas carol "Mary's Boy Child":

Even so, I confess I am not totally satisfied with the film's take on race. Steiger's Oscar for Best Actor kind of sums it up; the story ends up being about the white guy on a journey to become comfortable with his own racism, rather than about the black guy who has to deal with these bigots day in and day out. I suspect I might find Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, made the same year with the same lead actor, more satisfactory.

I can't finish without saluting Ray Charles' title song.


And so we reach another decade, with my rankings of the last ten films (in red below) among the forty Oscar winners so far as follows - not a bad decade, with half of the most recent ten in my top third overall, and seven of them in my top half. But there were some disappointments, and In the Heat of the Night was one of them.
40) The Great Ziegfeld (Oscar for 1936)
39) Cimarron (1930/31)
38) Cavalcade (1932/33)
37) Wings (1927/28)
36) Broadway Melody (1928/29)
35) All The King’s Men (1949)
34) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
33) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
32) Tom Jones (1963)
31) Gone With the Wind (1939)
30) Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
29) Going My Way (1944)
28) My Fair Lady (1964)
27) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
26) Mrs Miniver (1942)
25) On The Waterfront (1954)
24) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
23) Grand Hotel (1931/32)
22) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
21) Marty (1955)
20) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
19) Gigi (1958)
18) It Happened One Night (1934)
17) You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
16) The Lost Weekend (1945)
15) Hamlet (1948)
14) From Here To Eternity (1953)
13) Around The World In Eighty Days (1956)
12) Ben-Hur (1959)
11) The Apartment (1960)
10) All About Eve (1950)
9) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
8) West Side Story (1961)
7) A Man for all Seasons (1966)
6) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
5) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
4) Rebecca (1940)
3) An American in Paris (1951)
2) The Sound of Music (1965)
1) Casablanca (1943)

As I usually try and do, I got and read the book that the film was based on, In the Heat of the Night by John Ball. Here's the second paragraph of the third chapter:
Until Gillespie arrived in town, Sam Wood had been rated a big man, but Gillespie’s towering size automatically demoted Sam Wood to near normal stature. The new chief was only three years his senior—too young, Sam thought, for his job, even in a city as small as Wells. Furthermore Gillespie came from Texas, a state for which Sam felt no fraternal affection. But most of all Sam resented, consciously, Gillespie’s hard, inconsiderate, and demanding manner. Sam arrived at the conclusion that he felt no liking for the Negro [Tibbs], only rich satisfaction in seeing Gillespie apparently confounded. Before he could think any further, Gillespie was looking at him.
As is so often the case, almost everything about the book is better. Our setting is in South Carolina rather than Mississippi; Tibbs is from California, not Philadelphia; the murder victim is not a local industrialist, but an Italian conductor brought in to run a music festival to make the crappy little bigoted town a more popular place, with a supporting cast of sympathisers including an attractive daughter. Also, we get more inside the heads of the protagonists, and it's the junior police office Sam Wood who Tibbs develops the relationship with, rather than his boss as in the film. Here is a didactic but well-written exchange between them:
Sam thought carefully for a minute before he asked his next question. “Virgil, I’m going to ask you something you aren’t going to like. But I want to know. How did they [the LAPD] happen to take you? No, that isn’t what I mean. I want to ask you point-blank how come a colored man got all those advantages. Now if you want to get mad, go ahead.”
Tibbs countered with a question of his own. “You’ve always lived in the South, haven’t you?”
“I’ve never been further than Atlanta,” Sam acknowledged.
“Then it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”
Sam shook his head. “Some guys down here would kill you for saying a thing like that,” he cautioned.
“You made my point,” Tibbs replied.
It'ss the first of six novels and four short stories, and I think I will keep an eye out for the rest. You can get it here.

Incidentally, this is my first blogpost about a book that I read in 2020. More to come.


1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
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October 2004 books

I started the month in Portugal, and also went to Washington, New York, Utah, Boston, and London. At work, we published a report on Armenia. (Anne and I celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary, but I was in Portugal on the day itself.) Somewhere in the internets there is video of me giving evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in London on 26 October, but you'll have to settle for the minutes, here and here. Misha Glenny and I emerged from Westminster to see the sad news that John Peel had died. Here I am speaking at Brigham Young University on 13 October. I had more hair then.
The saddest news of the month was the loss of my former assistant from Bosnia days, Danijela. I was able to visit her resting place last year.

My October 2004 reading (lots of daytime flying meant I got through more books than was usual at that time of my life):

Non-fiction 8 (YTD 40)

Non-genre 1 (YTD 12)

SF 11 (YTD 68)

Comics 2 (YTD 6)
In The Shadow Of No Towers, by Art Spiegelman

6,800 pages (YTD 43,200)
2/21 by women (YTD 31/120)
None by PoC (YTD 2/120)

Best book of the month: the Locus Awards anthology pulls together a lot of superlative short stories, some of which I already knew but almost all of which I really liked. You can get it here. Also Making Sense of the Troubles is dated but thorough; you can get it here. However, you can skip Destiny's Shield, third in an alternative timeline series about Belisarius fighting an alien invasion; the hero never loses a battle or an argument and it gets boring fast. If you want, you can get it here.

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I Love the Bones of You: My Father And The Making Of Me, by Christopher Eccleston

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The first thing I committed to memory wasn't the lines of a play, it was the names of the Busby Babes. There was a drawer in my mum and dad's bedroom and whenever I got the chance I'd go rooting. I'd find sets of false teeth, ties, photos, watches, United programmes, leather lighters from the '70s, all sorts. It was fascinating. Boredom was our ally back then — we had nothing else to do so exploring the house was an inevitability.
This was the last book I finished in 2019, and the best of the Doctor Who biographies and autobiographies that I read last year (the others were by or about John Leeson, Mary Tamm (v1, v2), Robert Holmes, Matthew Waterhouse, Peter Davison and Andrew Cartmel). There's actually not all that much in it about Eccleston's performance as the Ninth Doctor. He devotes a short chapter to it, praising Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffatt, Euros Lyn and Billie Piper, and I guess letting his silence speak for the rest. He bookends that chapter with the experience of watching his own stories with his own young children, fifteen years on, which I found a very effective device to tell what the show now means to him. I'm looking forward to seeing him at Gallfrey One next month.

The guts of the book are about Eccleston's own somewhat tortured soul, and its roots in the life experience of his father, a factory worker whose talents were suffocated by the class-ridden social structures of mid-twentieth century Salford. He goes into moving detail about his own experiences of mental illness and particularly anorexia; it's tough but fascinating to read. He is disarmingly frank about his own failures and successes as an actor; always of course in the context of a profession which is rigged in favour of thin people with posh accents - he forced himself to become thin but could never be posh. Another moving passage describes his relationship with Trevor Hicks, who he portrayed in Hillsborough; the two became friends to the point that Eccleston was Hicks' best man at his wedding. But the most gut-wrenching sections are the passages about his father's gradual descent into dementia, and the consequent slow death of normal family life. The timing of the various incidents is a bit confusing - few dates are given, and we jump around quite a lot in the thirty years of his career; but reading between the lines it looks like his father's sharpest decline coincided with the 2004-05 filming of Doctor Who.

This is not a fluffy book, but it's a very thoughtful one, angry in places and always passionate. You can get it here.

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Wednesday reading

Current
Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
Selangor, by Gerry Barton

Last books finished
Roots and Wings: Ten Lessons of Motherhood that Helped Me Create and Run a Company, by Margery Kraus
The Last Days of New Paris, by China Mieville
Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, by James Hadley Chase
In the Heat of the Night, by Jon Ball
Distaff: A Science Fiction Anthology by Female Authors, eds. Rosie Oliver & Sam Primeau
Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon
Backstop Land, by Glenn Patterson

Next books
The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen
The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant
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The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, by Garrett Carr

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Or perhaps that's old news, they became a couple months ago. They are not in a pub. They are at her kitchen table eating dinner with her parents. There is polite intergenerational conversation. They all agree that reinstating border controls will be bad for business. He has just gotten a job with a wholesale supplier, delivering animal feed to farms both sides of the border. Her mother asks about this, she approves. It's all quite pleasant but there are sideways glances between the young couple. She lives with her parents and he lives with his, this is limiting, as you can imagine. Their toes tap soundlessly inside their shoes.
As Brexit looms at the end of this month, this book looks at what life is actually like along the Irish border, the author walking and camping (and occasionally canoeing) along the entire disputed length of it. He goes from south-east to north-west, so starting with the bits I know best and taking me into less well charted territory; it's a lovely series of vignettes of the realities of the land, and the brutal history that goes along with it. There is a particularly memorable sequence in the middle that segues from Barry McGuigan as hero to Sean Quinn as villain. The section on the cave networks which are literally undermining the border between Cavan and Fermanagh is also pretty memorable. A good book to give to anyone who doesn't really understand the Ireland/Brexit relationship, and isn't all that interested in the politics. You can get it here.
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