Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: In the Heat of the Night (dir by Norman Jewison)


The 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, tells the story of two very different men.

Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is the police chief of the small town of Sparta, Mississippi.  In many ways, Gillespie appears to the epitome of the bigoted Southern cop.  He’s overweight.  He loses his temper easily.  He chews a lot of gum.  He knows everyone in town and automatically distrusts anyone who he hasn’t seen before, especially if that person happens to be a black man or from the north.

Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a black man from the north.  He’s a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department and he’s as cool and controlled as Gillespie is temperamental and uncouth.  Tibbs has no patience for the casual racism that is epitomized by lawmen like Chief Gillespie.  When Gillespie says that Virgil is a “fancy name” for a black and asks what people call Virgil in Philadelphia, Virgil declares, “They call me Mister Tibbs!,” with an authority that leaves no doubt that he expects Gillespie to do the same.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

For once, that old joke is correct.  When a Chicago industrialist named Phillip Colbert is discover murdered in Sparta, Chief Gillespie heads up the investigation and, assuming that the murderer must be an outsider, orders Deputy Wood (Warren Oates) to check out the train station for any suspicious characters.  When Wood arrives at the station, he discovers Virgil standing on the platform.  Virgil is simply waiting for his train so that he can get back home to Philadelphia.  However, Wood promptly arrests him.  Gilespie accuses him of murdering Colbert, just to discover that Virgil’s a police detective from Philadelphia.

Though neither wants to work with the other, that’s exactly what Gillespie and Virgil are forced to do as they investigate Colbert’s murder.  Colbert was planning on building a factory in Sparta and his wife (Lee Grant) makes it clear that, if Sparta wants the factory and the money that comes with it, Virgil must be kept on the case.  Over the course of the investigation, Gillespie and Virgil come to a weary understanding as both of them are forced to confront their own preconceived notions about both the murder and life in Sparta.  In the end, if it’s impossible for them to truly become friends, they do develop a weary respect for each other.  That is perhaps the best that one could have hoped for in 1967.

I have to admit that it took me a few viewings before I really appreciated In the Heat of the Night.  Though this film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, it’s always suffered when compared to some of the films that it beat.  One can certainly see that the film was superior to Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  But was it a better film than The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde?  Did Rod Steiger really deserve to win Best Actor over Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty?  (Amazingly, Poitier wasn’t even nominated.)

To be honest, I still feel that In The Heat of the Night was probably the 3rd best of the 5 films nominated that year, superior to the condescending Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner but nowhere near as groundbreaking as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate.  The first time I watched In the Heat of the Night, I thought Steiger blustered a bit too much and the film’s central mystery didn’t really hold together and, to a large extent, I still feel like that.

But, at the same time, there’s a lot to appreciate about In the Heat of the Night.  On subsequent viewings, I came to better appreciate the way that director Norman Jewison, editor Hal Ashby, and cinematographer Haskwell Wexler created and maintained an atmosphere that was so thick that you can literally feel the Mississippi humidity while watching the film.  I came to appreciate the supporting cast, especially Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Scott Wilson, Anthony James, and Larry Gates.  (Gates especially makes an impression in his one scene, playing an outwardly genteel racist who nearly cries when Tibbs reacts to his slap by slapping him back.)  I also came to appreciate the fact that, while the white cop/black cop partnership has subsequently become a bit of a cliche, it was new and even controversial concept in 1967.

And finally, I came to better appreciate Sidney Poitier’s performance as Virgil.  Poitier underplays Virgil, giving a performance of tightly controlled rage.  While Steiger yells his way through the film, Poitier emphasizes that Virgil is always thinking.  As in the same year’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Poitier plays a dignified character but, here, that dignity is Virgil’s way of defying the demands and expectations of men like Gillespie.  When Virgil does strike back, it’s a cathartic moment because we understand how many times he’s had to hold back.

In the Heat of the Night may not have been the best film of 1967 but it’s still one worth watching.

Horror On The Lens: Silent Night, Bloody Night (dir by Theodore Gershuny)


The 1974 film Silent Night, Bloody Night is an oddity.

On the one hand, it’s pretty much a standard slasher film, complete with a menacing mansion, a horrible secret, a twist ending, and John Carradine playing a mute newspaper editor.

On the other hand, director Ted Gershuny directs like he’s making an underground art film and several of the supporting roles are played by actors who were best known for their association with Andy Warhol.

Personally, I like Silent Night, Bloody Night.  It has a terrible reputation and the film’s star, Mary Woronov, has gone on record calling it a “terrible movie” but I like the surreal touches the Gershuny brought to the material and the sepia-toned flashbacks have a nightmarish intensity to them.  The film makes no logical sense, which actually makes it all the more appealing to me.  As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.

Watch and decide for yourself!

6 More Chilling Classics: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, Scream Bloody Murder, Silent Night Bloody Night, Sisters of Death, War of the Robots, and Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory


For the past few months, I’ve been attempting to watch and review every film to be found in Mill Creek’s 50 Chilling Classics box set.  Here’s are 6 quick reviews of the latest few “chilling classics” that I’ve found the time to watch.

1) Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (Dir by William Beaudine)

This 1966 western/horror hybrid is just about as stupid as you think it is but it’s also a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood.  Notorious outlaw Jesse James (John Lupton) attempts to hold up a stagecoach but, in the process, his hulking partner Hank (Cal Bolder) is serious wounded.  Some helpful peasants direct Jesse and Hank to the mysterious German doctor who happens to live in a nearby dark and scary house.  That doctor is Maria Frankenstein (Narda Onyx) and she’s been conducting experiments to bring dead Mexicans back to life.  Imagine her joy when the nearly dead Hank shows up at her laboratory.  Anyway, Maria performs a brain transplant on Hank and once Hank comes back to life, she informs him that his new name is “Igor.”  Yes, she does.  That plot description pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the movie but I vaguely enjoyed vaguely paying attention to it.  Maria’s German accent is hilariously overdone, the Frankenstein laboratory is full of pointless electrical things, and a character dies halfway through the film just to later show up again with no explanation.  It’s that type of movie.

2) Scream Bloody Murder (dir. by Marc Ray)

So Matthew (played by Fred Holbert) is a disturbed young man who murders his father with a tractor and loses a hand in the process.  He’s sent off to a mental asylum for a few years and while there, he’s given a sharp and potentially deadly hook as a replacement for his hand.  Seriously, why would you give a weapon like that to a mental disturbed person who has just murdered his own father?  That’s just one of the many mysteries that goes unexplored in 1973’s Scream Bloody Murder, an occasionally watchable slice of entertainment that is ultimately too slow and predictable to really be effective.  Once Matthew is released from the asylum, he goes on the expected murder spree and goes all Collector-like on a prostitute named Vera (played by Leigh Mitchell, who also plays Matthew’s doomed mother in a clever bit of Oedipal casting).  Mitchell and Holbert both give surprisingly good performances and director Marc Ray comes up with a few visually inventive scenes of mayhem but, for the most part, this film never quite lives up to the excessive promise of its premise.

3) Silent Night Bloody Night (dir. by Theodore Gershuny)

Filmed in 1972 and subsequently released in 1974, Silent Night Bloody Night is a real treat, an atmospheric thriller that has a wonderfully complicated plot that will keep you guessing.  On Christmas Eve, Jeff Butler (James Patterson) comes to an isolated town to arrange the sell of his grandfather’s home.  As we discover through some wonderfully dream-like flashbacks, Jeff’s grandfather died nearly 40 years ago when he was set on fire in his own home.  With the help of local girl Diane (Mary Woronov), Jeff investigates his grandfather’s death and discovers that the town is full of secrets and people who are willing to kill to maintain them.  Director Theodore Gershuny uses the low budget to his advantage and the sepia-toned flashbacks are truly disturbing and haunting.  Ultimately, Silent Night Bloody Night feels like a dream itself and the mystery’s solution is less important than the journey taken to reach it.

4) Sisters of Death (dir. by Joseph Mazzuca)

Technically, this isn’t the best film to be found in the Chilling Classics box set but it’s still one of my personal favorites.  The 1977 film opens with a very baroque sorority initiation that ends with one of the sisters being killed in a game of Russian Roulette.  A few years later, the surviving sisters are invited to an isolated and lavish estate where it turns out that the dead girl’s father (well-played by Arthur Franz) is looking for revenge.  This film is predictable and a lot of the plot depends on people refusing to use any common sense but Sisters of Death is such a fun little melodrama that I can’t complain too much.  The film plays out like a surprisingly violent Lifetime movie and it all ends on a wonderfully cynical note.

5) War of the Robots (dir. by Alfonso Brescia)

Whatever you do, don’t watch War of the Robots alone.  Seriously, you need somebody there — preferably several people — so you can take turns making snarky comments and rude jokes.  Otherwise, you’ll just be stuck watching this amazingly bad science fiction film from 1978 and wondering how much more of it you can take.  Set in the generic future, War of the Robots tells the story of what happens when two human scientists are kidnapped by a bunch of robots.  Capt. John Boyd (Antonio Sabato) is sent to get the scientists back and the end result?  A war of the robots.  Or something like that.  This is one of those films where it’s difficult to really pay that much attention to what’s happening on-screen.  However, it’s worth seeing just for the chance to spot the wires that are enabling the model spaceship to hang over the “alien” landscapes.  Naturally, since this film was made in the 70s, everyone wears space suits with really wide lapels.

6) Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory (dir. by Paolo Heusch)

First released in 1961, Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory is an Italian/Austrian co-production.  It was originally titled Lycanthropus and while Werewolf In A Girls Dormitory is a lot more memorable, it also makes this film sound like a lot more fun than it actually is.  This slow and oddly somber film tells the story about a series of murders that occur at a school for delinquent girls.  The school’s newest teacher is the obvious suspect but then again, the killer might just be a werewolf.  I liked the look of this film — the film is lit to emphasize shadows and it gives the whole thing a very noir-like feel — but, much like Scream Bloody Murder, this movie was just too slow to really be effective.

So, out of this batch of 6, I would definitely recommend that you track down and see Silent Night Bloody Night and Sisters of Death.  I would also definitely suggest that you do your best to avoid War of the Robots.  As for the other 3, they’re all better than The Wicker Tree.