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 TV: Thriller 2.20 “The Hollow Watcher” (dir by William F. Claxton)


Here’s one final episode of Thriller for this October’s horrorthon!

In this episode, we learn what happens when you stuff a dead body in a scarecrow.  The scarecrow stalks you!

Seriously, scarecrows are so freaky.

Enjoy!

 

An October Film Review: The Night America Trembled (dir by Tom Donovan)


Today is the 79th anniversary of Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.

In 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Welles’s War of the World.  Presented as a live news program, it was one of the first mockumentaries.  It also caused a panic.  How big the panic was is open for debate.  Some say only a few people took it seriously.  Other sources say that it was a nationwide crisis.  But, regardless, Welles made history on that night.  Not only did he illustrate the power of the media but he also scared the Hell out of a lot of people.  All in all, a pretty good night…

Filmed in 1957 for a television program called Westinghouse Studio One, The Night America Trembled is a dramatization of that night.  For legal reasons, Orson Welles is not portrayed nor is his name mentioned.  Instead, the focus is mostly on the people listening to the broadcast and getting the wrong idea.  That may sound like a comedy but The Night America Trembled takes itself fairly seriously.  Even pompous old Edward R. Murrow shows up to narrate the film, in between taking drags off a cigarette.  (I enjoyed the show but, whenever Murrow showed up, I was reminded of a grumpy old teacher complaining that none of his students cared about the Spanish-American War.)

Clocking in at a brisk 60 minutes, The Night America Trembled is an interesting recreation of that October 30th.  Among the people panicking: a group of people in a bar who, before hearing the broadcast, were debating whether or not Hitler was as crazy as people said he was, a babysitter who goes absolutely crazy with fear, and a group of poker-playing college students.  If, like me, you’re a frequent viewer of TCM, you may recognize some of the faces in the large cast: Ed Asner, James Coburn, John Astin, Warren Oates, and Warren Beatty all make early appearances.

As I said, it’s an interesting little historical document and you can watch it below!

Enjoy!

A Movie A Day #160: Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (1973, directed by John Erman as “Bill Sampson”)


Sometimes, the story behind a movie is more interesting than the movie itself.

A young Steven Spielberg received a “story by” credit for Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies but, at one time, he was going to be credited with much more.  Spielberg wrote the treatment for Ace Eli and sold it to 20th Century Fox because he was hoping to make his directorial debut with the film.  However, shortly after selling the story, there was an executive shakeup at the studio.  Spielberg’s supporters were out and the men who replaced them gave the treatment to another screenwriter and director.  Spielberg was so angered by his treatment that it would be close to thirty years before he ever again worked with 20th Century Fox.  (In 2002, 20th Century Fox co-produced Minority Report with Dreamworks.)  Ace Eli ended up being directed by television veteran John Erman, who was so upset by the studio’s final edit of the film that he demanded to be credited under a pseudonym.

The plot of Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies is recognizably Spielbergian.  Ace Eli (Cliff Robertson, who was a pilot in real life and who, after he won his Oscar of Charly, was involved in several flying films) is a stunt pilot in the 1920s.  After his wife is killed in a crash, Eli and his 11 year-old son, Rodger (Eric Shea), set off on a barnstorming tour.  Going from small town to small town, Eli deals with his pain through nonstop womanaizer.  With Eli refusing to take any responsibility for his actions, Rodger is forced to grow up quickly.  It is a typical Spielberg coming of age story, combining a nostalgia for the past with a clear-eyed portrayal of irresponsible adulthood.

In fact, it is easy to imagine the approach the Spielberg would have taken if he had been allowed to direct his story.  Unfortunately, Spielberg did not get to direct the film and John Erman takes an impersonal approach to the material.  Whereas Spielberg would have captured the excitement of both flying and life on the road, Erman keeps the audience at a distance.  An underrated actor, Cliff Robertson is still miscast as the irresponsible Ace Eli.  The reason why Cliff Robertson was perfect for the role of Uncle Ben in Spider-Man is the same reason why he feels all wrong as Ace Eli.  He is just too upstanding a citizen to be as impulsive as Eli often is.  An actor like Warren Oates would have been perfect for the role.

Steven Spielberg directing Warren Oates in Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies?  That would have been something worth seeing!

The Big Let-Down: CHANDLER (MGM 1971)


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“Some (producers) are able and humane men and some are low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine, and the manners of a floorwalker with delusions of grandeur”- Raymond Chandler, “Writers in Hollywood”, first published in Esquire Magazine, Nov. 1945

I had high hopes for CHANDLER, I really did. An homage to the hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler (born July 23, 1888) with Warren Oates as the titular detective sounded like it’d be right up my dark alley. But as much as I wanted to like this movie, I was let down by its slow pace, convoluted script, and butchering by studio execs. Much of the film was cut, scenes were replaced, and the result is an evocative mood piece that ultimately doesn’t satisfy the noir lover in me.

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I don’t have a problem with Warren Oates as Chandler, with his Bogie-esque look and low-key performance…

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Film Review: The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960, directed by Budd Boetticher)


TheRiseFallofLegsDiamondIt’s the 1920s.  Prohibition is the law of the land and gangsters control the streets of New York City.  Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) and his tubercular brother, Eddie (Warren Oates), arrives in town.  Jack and Eddie are small-time jewel thieves but Jack has ambitions to be something more.  He works with his girlfriend, Alice (Karen Steele), as a dance instructor but he dreams of being the most powerful mobster in the world.  His first step is to get a job working as a bodyguard for New York crime lord (and fixer of the 1919 World Series), Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowery).  Though Rothstein never trusts him, Jack works his way into his inner circle and even gets a nickname.  Because he is a dancer, he is renamed “Legs” Diamond.

From the minute that he starts working with Rothstein, Legs Diamond’s cocky personality and ruthless ambition make him enemies.  When he is shot three times, Legs shocks everyone by surviving and announces that he is invulnerable and cannot be killed.  After Rothstein is mysteriously gunned down, Diamond goes to war against Leo “Butcher” Bremer (Jesse White, better known as the original Maytag repairman) for control of the New York underworld.

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was directed by the legendary Budd Boetticher, a bullfighter-turned-director who is best known for directing a series of low-budget westerns in the 1950s.  The violent and hard-boiled The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was Boetticher’s only gangster film and it’s a good one.  The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is tightly-written, fast-paced, and Lucien Ballard’s black-and-white cinematography ranks with the best of film noir.

The role of Legs Diamond was originally offered to future producer Robert Evans (of The Kid Stays In The Picture fame) but when Evans turned it down, the role was given to Ray Danton.  Though he is occasionally a little stiff, Danton still gives a good and tough performance as Diamond but it is still hard not to wonder what Evans would have been like in the role.  The rest of the cast is full of recognizable B-movie actors, all of whom do a good job.  Actress Dyan Cannon made her film debut in Legs Diamond, playing one of Diamond’s girlfriends.  Meanwhile, in only his third film role, Warren Oates is memorable and sympathetic as the sickly Eddie.  Though Oates does not get to do much in the film, his performance still shows why he went on to become one of the most popular and well-respected character actors of all time.

Though hardly historically accurate (in real life, Arnold Rothstein never knew Jack Diamond and Diamond received his nickname not because he was a dancer but because of the speed with which he ran away from the police), The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is an exciting and entertaining Depression-era gangster film.

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Thank You, Mr. Peckinpah: Ride the High Country (1962, directed by Sam Peckinpah)


rideIt’s the turn of the 20th century and the Old West is fading into legend.  When they were younger, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) were tough and respect lawmen but now, time has passed them by.  Judd now provides security for shady mining companies while Gil performs at county fairs under the name The Oregon Kid.  When Judd is hired to guard a shipment of gold, he enlists his former partner, Gil, to help.  Gil brings along his current protegé, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

On their way to the mining camp, they spend the night at the farm of Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  Elsa is eager to escape her domineering father and flirts with Heck.  When they leave the next morning, Elsa accompanies them, planning on meeting her fiancée, Billy Hammond (James Drury), at the mining camp.

When they reach the camp, they meet Bill and his four brothers (John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, John Davis Chandler, and the great Warren Oates).  Billy is a drunk who is planning on “sharing” Elsa with his brothers.  Gil, Judd, and Heck rescue Elsa and prepare for a final confrontation with the Hammond Brothers.  At the same time, Gil and Heck are planning on stealing the gold, with or without Judd’s help.

Ride the High Country was actually Sam Peckinpah’s second film but it’s the first of his films to truly feel like a Sam Peckinpah film.  (For his first film, The Deadly Companions, Peckinpah was largely a director-for-hire and had no say over the script or the final edit.)  Peckinpah rewrote N.B. Stone’s original script and reportedly based the noble Steve Judd on his own father.  All of Peckinpah’s usual themes are present in Ride the High Country, with Judd and, eventually, Gil representing the dying nobility of the old west and the Hammond brothers and the greedy mining companies representing the coming of the “modern” age.  Ride The High Country‘s final shoot-out and bittersweet ending even serve as a template for Peckinpah’s later work in The Wild Bunch.

Much like the characters they were playing, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were two aging veterans on the verge of retirement.  For these two aging stars, who had starred in countless westerns before this one, Ride The High Country would provide both fitting farewell and moving tribute.  This would be the last chance that either of them would have to appear in a great movie and both of them obviously relish the opportunity.  The best moments in the film are the ones where Judd and Gil just talk with the majestic mountains of California in the background.

Among the supporting cast, Ron Starr and Mariette Hartley are well-cast as the young lovers but are never as compelling as Gil or Judd.  Future Peckinpah regulars R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, and Warren Oates all make early appearances.  Seven years after playing brothers in Ride the High Country, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates would both appear in Peckinpah’s most celebrated film, The Wild Bunch.

The elegiac and beautifully-shot Ride The High Country was Sam Peckinpah’s first great film and it might be his best.

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride The High Country

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride The High Country