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Norman Jewison is Hollywood's most current rising young director, having tackled in his last two movies the problems of international and interracial coexistence, having packed them in with each, and having still more recently won the endorsement of Bosley Crowther, the critic's critic. The Jewison success story is in part a triumph of personal public relations, because back when he was boasting such dubious credits as Send Me No flowers and The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison was already giving interviews in which he posed as an emerging auter.
His latest, and critically most successful, picture is In the Heat of the Night, which presents Rod Stinger as a lonely Southern sheriff and Sidney Poitier as a homicide expert from up North. At the movie's start, Poi tier is passing through a small Mississippi town when Stinger's deputy mistakenly charges him with murder. Poi tier dramatically reveals his identity as a police officer (to a mixture of catcalls and enthusiastic screams from the audience). and eventually shows Steiger how to solve a murder.
As a mystery, Heat of the Night won't stand up Detective Poi tier does most of his investigating off screen, and several critical links to the murder's solution are left unexplained. Apparently realizing this, Jewison has defended the picture's weakness as a melodrama by saying, in effect, that it isn't one. He suggests that the real subject matter is the relationship between Poi tier and Stinger, and that the loose construction of the mystery throws proper emphasis onto that relationship. As long as this argument wasn't devised after the picture's completion, one can assume that Jewison and screen writer Skirling Silliphant were trying to use the elements of a mystery much as Antonioni did in Blow-Up: as a meeting ground for two individuals. But where Blow-Up deliberately stopped short of concluding its mystery, Heat of the Night begins with the news of the murder, and ends with the capture of the murderer. So Jewison's defense is hard to buy; there is no reason why the picture couldn't deal effectively with the relationship between a Southern sheriff and a black detective, and be compelling as a mystery also.
On the other hand, the murder in Heat of the Night does seem a bit more earthly than most movie crimes. And the slow, confusing solution probably has more to do with real police-work than its neat, ingenious melo-drama counterparts. Only Jewison isn't content with naturalism either; his detective relies excessively on a rather implausible knowledge of orchids, pules equally obscure and unlikely reservoirs of genius. Perhaps the most extreme example in this regard is the moment when Poitier snatches a weed off the accelerator of the victim's car and, a knowing smile on his face, says "Osmunda, a fern root," Which is all very well and good in a Shamrock Holmes story.
Haskell Wechsler's color photography seems gusty and professional, and one gets a real sense of the geography of a small Southern town. The night scenes are unusually well-lit and believable. Several tricky bits of camera work--in particular, a long moving shot of an automobile as its hood and roof are raised and Jowered --work well; several others don't.
With his cast, Jewison is uneasy. Poitier, a perfectly competent actor, ends up doing just what he has done in his last dozen interchangeable movies. And Lee Grant, as a bereaved widow, overacts like crazy, feigning grief by endlessly shaking her head. Predictably, the most impressive performance is that of Rod Steiger, but even his is shrouded in the high-television fakery that dominates the movie.
Still, watching Steiger is a joy, and just as his performance is a triumph of television acting, In the Heat of the Night is a big, wonderful TV show.
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