Things I Read Off the Screen in In the Heat of the Night

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NO LOAFING IN THIS ROOM … LADIES

For work reasons, been looking at Hal Ashby stuff, and this led me to pick up Mark Harris’s terrific book Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the stories behind the five Best Picture nominees from the 1967 Academy Awards. Ashby edited and helped produce one of them, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

Norman Jewison is a solid middle-of-the-road journeyman, and his film sometimes gets kicked around for its well-intentioned liberal attitudes, but it should be admitted that it’s a satisfying detective story and that the treatment of race, which might seem very safe today, was a risky proposition at the time the film was made. Fiona remarked that it was shrewd of the filmmakers to wrap their story up in a cop show and make it acceptable to everybody, but I would assume there were plenty of drive-ins where the film wouldn’t have been welcome. Playing safe probably brought in an extra 10% of the audience who would have been scared off by something more radical, but it would hardly satisfy the hardcore racists in the South or the North. I guess Rod Steiger’s Police Chief Gillespie represents that 10% — possessed of some basic human decency at core, but reared in unquestioning racist attitudes. The hope is that the right stimulus, be it Sidney Poitier or a Sidney Poitier film, might awaken such a person. So maybe the film is naive?

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COTTON GROWERS’ COOPERATIVE Reference Calendar 1966 SEPTEMBER 1966

I think the other flaw is the suggestion of some kind of parity between the bigotry of the small town whites and Poitier’s desire to see the rich plantation owner arrested for murder. Being prejudiced towards those with more money and power, and who show prejudice towards YOU, may be a disadvantage to a detective and I guess it is an unworthy trait, but I don’t think it’s on any kind of par with white supremacy. And yet Steiger is allowed to say “You’re just like the rest of us,” and Poitier has to acknowledge the justice of the remark. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant did have a weakness for simplistic messages, I think. On the other hand, this was probably an effort to prevent Saint Sidney from emerging as too perfect to be human.

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UP

Ashby cut together some snappy material, aided by Haskell Wexler’s photography and Quincy Jones’ score. I think some of the handheld work sticks out too much, but the filming is admirably loose for the period. Macro examination of a corpse displays pretty good makeup approximations of rigor mortis

Ashby’s direct cutting resists the softness of fades and keeps things taut. The flyblown diner where the film begins assembles itself out of grizzly details. The editing of the performances, an art rarely discussed, is especially impressive, with some reaction shots sprung on us by surprise (Steiger abruptly stops chewing his gum — uh-oh!) and some withheld until we’re aching for them (when Poitier first reveals he’s a cop, the delay on seeing Steiger’s reaction is delicious agony).

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Let us ALL be Alert We don’t want ANYONE Hurt … DANGER 200 VOLTS

From working under George Stevens and William Wyler, we can assume Ashby learned to gather lots of material. While Stevens typically shot the shit out of everything from every conceivable angle, he was perfectly content to let a whole scene play out in a single longshot with all the actors partially blocked from view, if that’s what felt best dramatically. Wyler shot few angles, often just changing lens for tighter shots, but he was equally relentless with his multiple takes, driving actors until they collapsed on the floor like unstrung puppets. Ashby may not have enjoyed his time as an assistant, but he was learning.

His first solo job was Tony Richardson’s THE LOVED ONE (also with Steiger), a film I like a lot. Reportedly Richardson, mad at UA for not upping his salary after the mega-success of his TOM JONES, punished the studio by gleefully wasting cash on this movie. Ashby’s adversarial relationship with his paymasters may have been picked up around this time, though no doubt it was part of his nature already.

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EAT … ICE COLD WATERMELON … SOUTHERN HOME COOKING … OPEN … DRINK

Harris reports in his book that Ashby was aware of the Mirisch Corporation’s similarly parsimonious attitude to Jewison, and it infuriated him. We note that Jewison produced THE LANDLORD, Ashby’s first feature as director, and the two fell out over the ending. Ashby had to place the producer in the role of bad guy. But also: he was right about the ending, his film is beautiful. And I don’t think Jewison has the sensibility to make a film quite that interesting. Harris’s book recounts the result of ITHOTN’s sneak preview, where Jewison was disturbed by the audience laughter at moments where Steiger got egg on his face. Ashby had to persuade him that the laughter was GOOD — that the audience really got the film. I almost suspect they understood it better than Jewison.

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8 Responses to “Things I Read Off the Screen in In the Heat of the Night”

  1. informative piece; I’m sure I’m not the only one unaware of Ashby’s contribution. Thanks!

  2. Ashby’s editing credits are surprising — The Loved One is the only film that feels anything like a precursor to the New Hollywood he would exemplify. And that’s because it’s an offshoot of the British New Wave.

    Mark Harris’s book is highly recommended — better than the Ashby bio, though that one’s essential for fans too.

  3. The Harris book is excellent all around — some fascinating socio-historical details about the experience of movie-going and changing audience demographics in there too, as well as all of the material on the actual films. Looking forward to his latest one.

  4. Ashby optioned the movie rights of Gore Vidal’s Kalki back in the day. ” He was a great director (said Eugene) until he decided he wanted to shove all the cocaine in the world up his nose.

  5. Everything he did, he did to excess. If only he could have found an addiction less harmful than drugs… or cinema. But then we wouldn’t have his films.

    He seems to have functioned reasonably well on marijuana, though it fuelled his other obsessions in a way that probably wasn’t good.

    It’s probably possible to create a pharmaceutical theory of American cinema, showing that weed brought in the New Hollywood aesthetics and coke destroyed them.

  6. I finally caught up with Second-Hand Hearts at the Lumiere Fest in Lyon. It’s neither the rumoured disaster nor a complete triumph, but a rather unique curate’s egg.

  7. Searched for calendar featured in this movie…recalled when I first saw the movie…and seeing my birthday, 10th September 1966!

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