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.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (dir by Richard Brooks)


The 1958 best picture nominee, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, opens with a 30-something Paul Newman doing something stupid.

It’s a testament to just how incredibly handsome Paul Newman was in the 1950s that he can still be sexy even while he’s stumbling around in a drunken haze and attempting to jump over hurdles on a high school football field.  Newman is playing Brick Pollitt, youngest son of the wealthy cotton farmer Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives).  Brick was a star athlete in high school but now, he’s a drunk with an unhappy marriage and a lot of bitter feelings.  When Brick attempts to jump over the hurdles, he breaks his ankle.  The only thing that keeps Brick from being as big a loser as Biff Loman is the fact that he looks like Paul Newman.

Brick is married to Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), a beautiful woman who may have grown up on the wrong side of the tracks but who has married into money.  The only problem is that it doesn’t seem like Brick is ever going to get that money.  With Big Daddy getting older, everyone in Mississippi is wondering which Pollitt son will inherit his fortune.  Will it be drunken, self-pitying Brick or will it be Goober (Jack Carson) and his wife (Madeleine Sherwood)?  One point in Goober’s favor is that he and his wife already have five rambunctious children while Brick and Maggie have none.  In fact, gossip has it that Brick and Maggie aren’t even sleeping in the same bed!  (While Maggie begs Brick to make love to her, Brick defiantly sleeps on the couch.)  The other problem is that, for whatever reason, Brick harbors unending resentment towards … well, everything.  Perhaps it has something to do with the mysterious death of Brick’s best friend and former teammate, Skipper…

Brick, Maggie, Goober, and the whole clan are in Mississippi to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday.  Big Daddy is happy because he’s just been told that, despite a recent scare, he does not have cancer.  What Big Daddy doesn’t know is that his doctor (Larry Gates) lied to him.  Big Daddy does have cancer.  In fact, Big Daddy only has a year to live.

Whenever I watch Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, I find it’s helpful to try to imagine what it would have been like to watch the movie in the 1950s.  Imagine how audiences, at a time when married couples were still regularly portrayed as sleeping in separate beds and when men were naturally assumed to be the kings of their household, reacted to seeing a film where Elizabeth Taylor was literally reduced to begging Paul Newman to make love to her while Newman hopped around on a crutch and continually found himself getting stuck in embarrassing situations.  Though it may seem tame by today’s standards, the film was undeniably daring for 1958 and watching it is like stepping into a time machine and discovering that, yes, there was a time when Elizabeth Taylor wearing a modest slip was considered to be the height of raciness.

Of course, the film itself is quite toned down from the Tennessee Williams’s play on which it was based.  Williams reportedly hated the changes that were made in the screenplay.  In the play, Skipper committed suicide after confessing that he had romantic feelings for Brick, feelings that Brick claims he did not reciprocate.  That was glossed voter in the film, as was the story of Skipper’s unsuccessful attempt to prove his heterosexuality by having sex with Maggie.  By removing any direct reference to the romantic undercurrent of Brick and Skipper’s relationship, the film also removes most of Brick’s motivation.  (It’s still there in the subtext, of course, but it’s probable that the hints that Newman and Taylor provided in their performances went straight over the heads of most audience members.)  In the play, Brick is tortured by self-doubt and questions about his own sexuality.  In the film, he just comes across as being rather petulant.

And again, it’s fortunate that, in the film, Brick was played by Paul Newman.  It doesn’t matter how bitter Brick becomes or how much he whines about not wanting to be around his family.  One look at Newman’s blue eyes and you understand why Maggie is willing to put up with him.  In the role of Maggie, Elizabeth Taylor gives a performance that manages to be both ferocious and delicate at the same time.  Maggie knows how to play the genteel games of the upper class South but she’s definitely not going to let anyone push her around.  It’s easy to see why Big Daddy prefers the company of Maggie to his own blood relations.  It’s not just that Maggie’s beautiful, though the implication that Big Daddy is attracted to her is certainly present in the film.  It’s also the she’s the only person around who is as strong and determined as him.

Indeed, seen today, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof‘s main strength is that it’s a masterclass in good acting.  Williams’s dialogue is so stylized and his plot is so melodramatic that one bad performance would have caused the entire film to implode.  Fortunately, Newman and Taylor make even the archest of lines sound totally natural while Burl Ives and Judith Anderson are both the epitome of flamboyant charisma as Big Daddy and Big Mama.  It takes a lot of personality to earn a nickname like Big Daddy but Ives pulls it off.

Along with being a huge box office success, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was nominated for best picture of 1958.  However, it lost to Gigi.

Cleaning Out The DVR: The Hoodlum Priest (dir by Irvin Kershner)


(I recorded The Hoodlum Priest off of TCM on January 6th of this year.)

“I’m not trying to change the world.  I’m just trying to keep the world from changing me.”

— Anti-Death Penalty Activist in The Hoodlum Priest (1961)

The Hoodlum Priest tells the story of two men who have far more in common than may first seem apparent.

Billy Lee Jackson (Keir Dullea) has spent the last few months in prison and seems to be destined to return as soon as possible.  Though he was convicted of armed robbery, the truth was that Billy was little more than a mugger and a petty thief.  It only takes one look at him to see that his tough exterior is largely an act.  Billy is angry, bitter, and often scared but tough he definitely isn’t.  As soon as Billy’s released back onto the streets of St. Louis, he teams up with his friend, Pico (Don Joslyn), and the two of them plot to crack a safe.

Father Charles Dismas Clark (Don Murray) is a Jesuit who has dedicated his life to trying to rehabilitate ex-cons like Billy.  As Father Clark explains it, he is the son of coal miners, a descendant of the original Molly Maguires.  He knows what it means to be on the fringes of society.  As opposed to his colleagues, Father Clark speaks the language of the streets.  (Of course, we’re talking about the streets of 1961 here, which means that Father Clark spends a lot of time saying stuff, “Hey, I ain’t no square!”)  Father Clark’s dream is to open up a halfway house, a place where those released from prison can stay as they try to reintegrate into society.   Helping Father Clark is a famed attorney named Louis Rosen (Larry Gates).  Opposing him and suggesting that Clark is as much a hoodlum as those he claims to be helping is a supercilious journalist named George Hale (Logan Ramsey).

At first, it appears that Billy could be one of Father Clark’s greatest success stories.  After convincing Billy and Pico to abandon their criminal plans, Father Clark arranges for Billy to get a job.  Billy even begins a rather unlikely romance with a wealthy socialite named Ellen (Cindi Wood).  However, no matter how hard Billy tries to resist, the temptation to return to his old ways remains.  While Father Clark struggles to convince people to support his halfway house, Billy finds himself drawn back into a life of crime…

The Hoodlum Priest was based on a true story.  The real Father Clark personally approached Don Murray and told him the story behind the founding of Dismas House.  Murray felt so strongly about Clark’s story that he not only starred in and produced The Hoodlum Priest but also wrote the screenplay.  (The script was credited to Don Deer, which was Murray’s nickname when he was a high school track star.)

That this film was a passion project for Murray is obvious in the intensity of his performance.  As played by Murray, Father Clark is hardly an intellectual.  Instead, he’s frequently as emotional and, at times, as angry as the people that he’s trying to help.  When Billy fails to show proper gratitude after Father Clark rescues him from being sent back to jail, Clark refuses to excuse the snub.  Clark may be sincere but he’s not going to let anyone push him around.  Director Irvin Kershner and cinematography Haskell Wexler bring a gritty realism to the film’s visuals, which keeps the film from getting overwhelmed by its own sincerity.

The Hoodlum Priest is a well-done piece of social commentary, one that features a still relevant message about the struggle of ex-cons to reintegrate into society.  Don Murray brings the same righteous authority to this film that he would later bring to Twin Peaks: The Return.  This is a good one to keep an eye out for on TCM.

A Movie A Day #244: Death of a Gunfighter (1969, directed by Allen Smithee)


At the turn of the 20th century, the mayor and the business community of Cottonwood Springs, Texas are determined to bring their small town into the modern era.  The Mayor (Larry Gates) has even purchased one of those newfangled automobiles that have been taking the country by storm.  However, the marshal of Cottonwood Spings, Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), is considered to be an embarrassing relic of the past.  Patch has served as marshal for 20 years but now, his old west style of justice is seen as being detrimental to the town’s development.  When Patch shoots a drunk in self-defense, the town leaders use it as an excuse to demand Patch’s resignation.  When Patch refuses to quit and points out that he knows all of the secrets of what everyone did before they became respectable, the business community responds by bringing in their own gunfighters to kill the old marshal.

Death of a Gunfighter is historically significant because it was the very first film to ever be credited to Allen Smithee.  The movie was actually started by TV director Robert Totten and, after Widmark demanded that Totten be fired, completed by the legendary Don Siegel.  Since Totten worked for 25 days on the film while Siegel was only on set for 9, Siegel refused to take credit for the film.  When Widmark protested against Totten receiving credit, the Director’s Guild of America compromised by allowing the film to be credited to the fictitious Allen Smithee.

In the years after the release of Death of a Gunfighter, the Allen (or, more often, Alan) Smithee name would be used for films on which the director felt that he had not been allowed to exercise creative control over the final product.  The Smithee credit became associated with bad films like The O.J. Simpson Story and Let’s Get Harry which makes it ironic that Death of a Gunfighter is not bad at all.  It’s an elegiac and intelligent film about the death of the old west and the coming of the modern era.  It also features not only one of Richard Widmark’s best performances but an interracial love story between the marshal and a brothel madame played by Lena Horne.  The supporting cast is full of familiar western actors, with Royal Dano, Harry Carey, Jr., Larry Gates, Dub Taylor, and Kent Smith all making an impression.  Even the great John Saxon has a small role.  Though it may be best known for its “director,” Death of a Gunfighter is a film that will be enjoyed by any good western fan.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Sand Pebbles (dir by Robert Wise)


The_Sand_Pebbles_film_posterAfter watching Witness For The Prosecution, I continued TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1966 Best Picture nominee, The Sand Pebbles.

Considering that The Sand Pebbles is close to four hours long, it’s interesting how little there is to really say about it.  Taking place in 1926, The Sand Pebbles follows the crew of the USS San Pablo, a gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River in China.  The San Pablo is there to protect American business interests, which are in particular danger because China is caught up in a communist revolution.  For the most part, the crew of the San Pablo are portrayed as being lazy and racist.  They have little interest in understanding the culture of the people around them and they use Chinese laborer to do the work on the boat.

When Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is transferred to the San Pablo, he upsets his fellow crewmen by insisting on working in the ship’s engine room himself, the fear being that if Holman is willing to work then the rest of them will be expected to work as well.  The ship’s commander, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), views Holman as being a threat to morale and starts to make plans to get Holman off of his boat.  But, first, the boat is going to have to get out of China…

The Sand Pebbles is an episodic film and some of those episodes are more interesting than others.  Typically, an episode will start out positively and then end with some sudden tragedy.  For instance, Holman trains one laborer (Mako) to be a boxer and then watches as he beats the most racist crewman on the ship.  However, just a few minutes later, the laborer is captured and savagely tortured by the communists and Holman is forced to perform a mercy killing.

In another subplot, Holman’s only friend, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), marries a local prostitute (Emmanuelle Arsan, who would later write an autobiography that would serve as the basis for a very different type of film).  However, in order to see his wife, Frenchy has to continually swim to shore in the middle of the night.  Frenchy soon develops pneumonia and dies while his wife is dragged off and apparently executed.

And finally, Holman strikes up a romance with Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), an innocent missionary.  However, when her arrogant and naive boss, Jameson (Larry Gates), refuses to leave the country despite the revolution, the San Pablo is ordered to rescue them.  This, of course, leads to a final battle with the communists which leaves a good deal of the cast dead.

As I watched The Sand Pebbles, my main impression was that it was an extremely long movie.  The film’s climatic battle was exciting and Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the director of 12 Years A Slave and Shame) gave a good performance but otherwise, the film often seemed to drag.  While the movie’s theme of Americans struggling (and failing) to understand another country’s culture had a definite resonance, The Sand Pebbles did not seem to be quite sure what it truly wanted to say about it.

Let’s face it — over 500 films have been nominated for best picture.  And, while a good deal of them hold up surprisingly well and are still entertaining to watch, there’s also a handful like The Sand Pebbles, ambitious films that never quite reached their potential but were probably nominated because they seemed like the type of epic film that should be nominated.  Many of these films were nominated and a few even won.

However, in the case of The Sand Pebbles, a nomination would have to be enough.  That year, the Oscar for Best Picture was won by A Man For All Seasons.

Shattered Politics #16: Ada (dir by Daniel Mann)


Ada_posterSouthern melodrama!

Speaking as a Southerner (well, a Southwesterner), I’ve always found in interesting that the rest of America loves to talk about how much they hate us but, at the same time, they also love books and movies set down here.  From the era of silent cinema to today with films like August: Osage County, people up north are obsessed with Southern melodrama.

It’s interesting because I’ve lived down south for most of my 29 years and there’s really not any more melodrama down here than there is anywhere else.  In fact, one of the main reasons that I enjoy watching Southern melodramas is because I enjoy seeing what the folks up north actually believe to be true.  I watch and I think to myself, “Northerners actually believe this shit.”  And then I laugh and laugh.

Take, for example, the 1961 film Ada.  Ada is pure Southern political melodrama.  (Admittedly, one of the best political films of all time — All The King’s Men — is a Southern melodrama but, to put it politely, Ada is no All The King’s Men.)

Ada tells the story of Bo Gillis (Dean Martin), a guitar-playing, singing sheriff who is running for governor of an unnamed Southern state.  Bo is running as a reform candidate but actually he’s just a figurehead for the wealthy and corrupt Sylvester Marin (Wilfred Hyde-White).  Bo is popular with the crowds, he has a great speech writer named Steve (played by the great character actor, Martin Balsam), and he has ruthless supporters who are willing to do anything to get him elected.  What he doesn’t have is a wife.  But that changes when he meets a prostitute named Ada (Susan Hayward) and marries her three weeks before the election.

At first, Sylvester demands that Bo get the marriage annulled.  Bo, however, refuses.  Fortunately, it turns out that the wife of Bo’s opponent is a drug addict.  Sylvester’s henchman Yancey (Ralph Meeker) leaks the news to the press and Bo is elected governor.

The only problem is that, once Bo is elected, he declares the he wants to run an honest administration and he starts to question Sylvester’s orders.  After the lieutenant governor is forced to resign, Ada lobbies to be appointed to the job.  Soon after Ada is confirmed, Bo is nearly blown up in his car.  While Bo is recovering, Ada serves as acting governor.  Will Ada be able to defeat Sylvester and convince Bo that she wasn’t responsible for trying to get him killed?

Watch and find out!

Or don’t.

Ada truly puts the drama into melodrama.  (It does not, however, bring the mellow.)  This is one of those films that’s full of overheated (yet strangely forgettable) dialogue and vaguely familiar character actors speaking in thick Southern accents.  Susan Hayward is so intense that you worry she might have killed a grip before shooting her scenes while Dean Martin spends most of the movie looking as if he’s waiting for the Rat Pack to show up and take him to a better party.

This is one of those films that you watch and you think to yourself, “Northerners actually believe this shit.”

And then you laugh and laugh.