Viewer Guide: In the Heat of the Night and Glassland

January 17, 2020 | Richard Peña


In the Heat of the Night (1967)

This week’s classic is In the Heat of the Night, the 1967 crime drama murder mystery directed by Norman Jewison.

Flanked by the release of To Sir, With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night was the centerpiece of a trio of movies that made Sidney Poitier the unexpected top box office star of the year—the first time a person of color had held that enviable position. Yet while to an extent a kind of genre film, arguably it was In the Heat of the Night that best captured the zeitgeist of social change that was sweeping across the nation during the “long hot summer” of 1967, when 159 riots convulsed American cities with revolutionary impact as the Sixties decade entered its final phase.

Poitier stars as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police officer on his way home after visiting his mother, waiting to change late night trains in the lonely station of Sparta, Mississippi. But “waiting alone while Black” in the deep south of 1967 can be a good way to attract trouble, and sure enough, it walks through the door in the form of Bill Gillespie, Sparta’s unapologetically racist police chief played by Rod Steiger. Gillespie immediately arrests Tibbs for the suspected murder of Phillip Colbert, a wealthy northern developer who’s been found dead in the street downtown. When Gillespie is forced to admit to his embarrassing mistake, he can’t wait to get Tibbs on the next train out of town. Except when Tibbs reveals he’s an expert homicide investigator, Colbert’s traumatized widow, played by Lee Grant, makes an ultimatum that Sparta’s town officials can’t ignore in order to insure her husband’s murder receives a proper investigation. And with that, Tibbs and Gillespie find themselves forced into becoming the un-easiest of partners, with Tibbs pursuing an investigation at the same as he tries to avoid finding himself at the wrong side of a shotgun.

In the Heat of the Night was based on the 1965 novel of the same name by John Ball, which was the first of seven mystery novels featuring the black police detective Virgil Tibbs—but hailing from Pasadena rather than Philadelphia. Screenwriter Sterling Silliphant had worked with Sidney Poitier before, and adjusted the characterization of Tibbs to that of an east coast northerner in order to better fit with Poitier’s more sophisticated image. As the first African American to win a Best Actor Oscar for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, Poitier was producer Walter Mirisch’s first and only choice to star, but Mirisch still had a tough time convincing United Artists to come on board, with the independent studio nervous about the film’s box office prospects in the South.

With the budget pared to the bone in order to get a production green light, director Norman Jewison originally intended to shoot the film on deep South locations, but relocated to Illinois and Tennessee due to Poitier’s frightening brush with the Klan during a prior visit to Mississippi; that incident actually provided the inspiration for the scene where Tibbs is almost run off the road by a gang of thugs. A Stanislavski trained actor, Rod Steiger both impressed and challenged Poitier with his method approach to the role of Sheriff Gillespie, staying fully in character off-camera throughout the shoot. Upon its release, the movie was a sleeper hit that connected with the spirit of the times, prompting a new generation of audiences to erupt in cheers when Tibbs return slaps the fiercely racist Mr. Endicott. Come Oscar time, although Poitier was passed over for recognition, the film garnered seven nominations and racked up five wins, including statuettes for supporting actor Steiger as well as the top honor for Best Picture. Inspiring two sequels starring Poitier and even a TV series spin-off in 1988, Poitier’s seething delivery of, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” became an instant sound bite classic, and ranks #16 in the AFI’s “100 Years…100 Quotes” list of memorable movie lines.


Glassland (2014)

This week’s indie is Glassland, a 2014 drama directed by Gerard Barrett.

Set in contemporary Dublin, Glassland stars Jack Reynor as John, an Irish twenty-something working as a taxi driver. When he’s not behind the wheel, the only enjoyment in John’s private life seems limited to hanging out in video game parlors with his best friend Shane, played by Will Poulter. But back at home, John finds himself increasingly mired in the downward spiral of his mother Jean, played by Toni Collette in a fiercely raw performance. Now in the throes of late stage alcoholism, Jean has descended into a volatile and sometimes terrifying state, with each new episode of binge drinking bringing her closer to the brink of death. Finally able to break through Jean’s delusional wall of denial, John forces her to give rehab a try, but the government-subsidized stay is nowhere near the time Jean needs to have any hope of a lasting recovery. Eventually, an opportunity arises to place Jean in a facility for long term treatment—the only trouble is, how to pay for it? John must confront a stark choice between his mother’s well-being and entering a morally reprehensible underworld.

For those who might have been expecting or hoping for a soft, cuddly version of contemporary Ireland, Glassland sadly might not have been for you, although I hope you did appreciate the filmmakers’ bracing portrait of the lives and spaces of those Irish who rarely make it to the screen. Director Gerard Barrett, here making his second film, draws inspiration from such tough as nails European realists such as Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers and France’s Bruno Dumont, but brings an approach that’s all his own, especially in his work with actors. Winning a World Cinema acting prize for Jack Reynor at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Glassland also provided a bravura role for Australian-born actress Toni Collette. Hats off to Ms. Collette for taking on such a difficult, demanding and completely unflattering role; her seven-minute monologue as to how the birth of her Downs Syndrome son destroyed her marriage and her happiness is both grueling to listen to and extraordinary to watch. Beginning her career in the early 1990s, Collette achieved international recognition in 1994 for the sleeper hit Muriel’s Wedding, and later garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in 1999 for The Sixth Sense. Collette’s extensive credits include memorable performances in such films and television series as In Her Shoes, Little Miss Sunshine and The United States of Tara.

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