Blindspotting: In The Heat Of The Night and Absence Of Malice

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As “issues” movies go, In The Heat Of The Night ranks as one of the big ones. It may not have been the first of its kind, but it solidifies its place in film history by crafting moments of subtlety and nuance while also wearing its central issue proudly on its sleeve and never resorting to being maudlin. Every movie since its release that waves a flag for a cause or makes a political point has a direct line to it as an influence – even if many of them fall victim to excessive beating of their drums. So why had I not yet seen this classic? Aside from the fact that I can’t see everything (dammit), it fell into that category of “well, I pretty much know the story…”. Of course, that’s rarely the case isn’t it? Even if the plot points match up to what you expected, there’s always all the bits in between to savour. A fine reason to keep doing these blind spots…

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To narrow the field of potential pairings with In The Heat Of The Night, I looked for another issue film that could be considered as revolving around a central powerhouse performance. It’s hard to compete with Heat’s tandem headliners – Sidney Poitier as the Philadelphia detective stuck in a racist Southern town and Rod Steiger giving an Oscar-winning turn as the town’s sheriff – but you could do far worse than calling on Mr. Paul Newman…His Oscar-nominated role in Absence Of Malice was one I had wanted to see for awhile, so it seemed a good double bill once you combine that with the film’s focus on the power and responsibility of the press and legal system. Another trait both movies share is the way they jump quickly out of the gate. We’re not even 15 minutes into Absence Of Malice and we know: that a union boss has gone missing and is presumed dead (the film was made only 5-6 years after Jimmy Hoffa disappeared – he wasn’t even legally declared dead yet); the justice department has some suspects but is getting nowhere; they decide to focus their investigation on Michael Gallagher (Newman) since he is the son of a former criminal with ties to the suspects (and they hope to lean on him for information); a snoopy reporter named Megan (Sally Field) has discovered the investigation; the justice department lead on the case purposely leaked the investigation so that Gallagher would see it in the press; Michael is likely totally innocent and the story run in the newspaper will have assumptions and accusations leading to unjust consequences; etc. It’s a pretty packed opening and the film expects you to keep up as it drops names right and left. It does essentially follow through with where you assume the plot will go – Gallagher does indeed suffer due to the leaked story as his union shuts him down, he loses customers and his closest friend Teresa (the also nominated Melinda Dillon) is pulled into the story – but manages to keep you guessing a bit regarding Gallagher’s actual connections and Teresa’s guilt over a secret they share. Field also keeps you guessing by oddly playing the reporter at different times as confident, flighty, defiant, meek, mouthy and sexy. It’s not completely the actress’ fault (though her performance just doesn’t seem to fit at times) as the character’s behaviour is a grab bag of possibilities. It certainly keeps you a bit off balance (particularly during the scenes between the two leads), but there’s little likelihood that it was intentional. Newman for his part is remarkably consistent throughout as he plays Gallagher as stoic and very focused. Though he is initially upset at the paper and Megan for the fact-free reporting about him, he tries to settle into a moral compass for her. “You say someone is guilty, everyone believes you. You say they’re innocent and no one cares.” Her response shows he has some work ahead of him: “That’s not the paper’s fault, that’s people.”

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As mentioned, In The Heat Of The Night also has a quick out of the gate start. Its plot is well enough known: Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is passing through Sparta Mississippi, but while waiting for his connection gets pulled from the train station late one night by a deputy who is suspicious of a well-dressed black man. One of the town’s wealthiest and most important men has just been found dead in an alleyway, so Virgil is brought in for questioning and is assumed to be the prime suspect (“How does a coloured man get that kind of money?”). Every person he comes across in the town has an immediate reaction to him and though finding out that he’s a cop from Philadelphia may drop him from the suspect list, no one is jumping to extend a friendly handshake. Once his captain offers Tibbs’ services to Sheriff Gillespie (Steiger) over the phone, the sheriff’s own racism and demeanour towards the detective becomes situational – one minute calling him “Boy” and the next ordering his staff and the morgue to give Tibbs everything he needs. Gillespie is definitely conflicted since he needs to solve the case (the deceased Mr. Colbert was on the verge of socking even more investment into the town), but hates being shown up by a black man. Except for two people, the rest of the town see little use for Tibbs and stick with their initial assumptions (why change when you’re comfortable?). Mrs. Colbert is one of those two and applies pressure to the sheriff and mayor to keep Tibbs as the lead investigator. Not only did he show her kindness while breaking the news of the murder to her, but he is also able to quickly surmise that a second suspect is also innocent. Unsurprisingly, that second suspect (a young man who took the dead man’s wallet after the crime had been committed) is the other person who gives Tibbs some respect.

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That’s not to say that Tibbs is exactly respectful of all the townsfolk himself…One of the key elements of the film is that Virgil isn’t a perfect human being either. He is well-educated, classy and does his job very well, but he also doesn’t hesitate to look down on most of these Southerners. Sure he has good reason to carry that chip on his shoulder when he’s treated this way, but it begins to interfere with his investigation and he starts making his own assumptions and looking for his own justice. Gillespie, though quick to anger and judgement himself, is also a smart man. The two of them push and pull for the entirety of the film and use each other’s weaknesses. At one point when Tibbs has given up and decided to go home, Gillespie uses Tibbs’ “holier than thou” attitude against him to convince him to stay by asking him how he could refuse a chance to make all these white people look stupid. There’s a strong theme throughout of people showing their need to instill their own moral codes on others. Oddly enough, it’s a theme that snakes through Absence Of Malice as well. The newspaper has little moral code of its own as shown by their lawyer (as long as they made a small effort to reach Gallagher or publish his denials, they can say whatever they want about him – if there is absence of malice then justice is served), but the DoJ have reached their own conclusions and need to get there no matter what. Even Gallagher (though he has pretty justified reasons as the film goes on) feels compelled to teach a few lessons to all the different players. In both films, no one wants to be reasonable. Which is somewhat the point – for many people their own moral code is justification enough.

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Absence Of Malice tends to hammer home its points though. I’ve never considered Sydney Pollack the most subtle of directors and numerous scenes in the movie help reinforce that rather unfounded argument. Of note is Field’s rather clunky delivery of “What are you saying?” to the lawyer that sets up his “absence of malice” speech. The final 10-15 minute scene in the U.S. assistant attorney general’s office is both the best scene in the movie and one of its glaring faults. It’s pretty great almost solely due to Wilford Brimley’s reading of his AAG role as a disappointed parent getting his unruly children to tell him what they did wrong. But it exposes the faults of the film by stating its message a bit too clearly – don’t rush to judgement, consider what truth means, it should be better to get a story right than fast and people can get hurt. Some relevant questions that ring true today for sure, but it’s weakened by its method. Newman is also strong in that final scene though – both in how he quietly responds to questions and how he watches others without breaking his focus. One could argue that In The Heat Of The Night doesn’t exactly shy away from stating out loud its own message, but both Tibbs and Gillespie are complex characters who contribute to the story’s resolution without ever having to stand up and shout “Racism is bad!”. It’s much more powerful when you simply see that it’s bad and don’t have to be told. The film is probably best known for two moments when Tibbs stands up proudly for himself. The first is when he is condescendingly asked what them Northerners call him (“They call me Mr. Tibbs!”) and the second when he responds to being slapped by the town’s powerful cotton plantation owner. Poitier is on fire in both these scenes – that seething rage just under the surface of Tibbs almost makes you back away from the screen for fear of catching some shrapnel if it explodes. I can only imagine how this must have come across in 1967 because it’s still pretty damn intense in 2013.

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Neither film is overly showy with its visuals (both directors are much more focused on story and characters), but In The Heat Of The Night still takes full advantage of the great Haskell Wexler behind the lens. Shadows and shafts of light come into play and director Norman Jewison chooses his long shots judiciously to set scenes or show character relationships. The film is filled with talent – from the Ray Charles theme song (not a particularly great song in my opinion, but still…) to a great cast of character actors (Warren Oates, William Schallert, Scott Wilson, Larry D Mann, Anthony James – if you don’t know the names, I guarantee you know every one of those faces). Hal Ashby hadn’t started his directing career yet, but he won an Oscar for his work editing the film. In all, it won 5 Oscars including Best Picture – and that’s in a year that also had Bonnie And Clyde, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in the running for top honours. Not that Oscars are, by any means, a sign of quality, but Jewison’s film makes a good standard bearer for that period. Absence Of Malice didn’t quite knock ‘em dead at the Academy Awards, but its 3 nominations (along with Newman’s nod, Dillon and the screenplay got noms as well) weren’t too shabby. If perhaps the screenplay didn’t shine as strong as it could have, the film still casts a reasonably interesting story (with good doses of tension as we try to figure out what Teresa’s secret is and how Gallagher’s plan will roll out) and even manages to put a different context around what initially seems like a bad idea for a romantic plotline. Indeed both films manage to create solid contexts around their issues and bring to the fore the characters and the consequences. In particular, the consequences of basing your world view solely on what you see from your own pedestal.

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Bob Turnbull
Critical Thinker At Large

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