Performance of the week: Rod Steiger in In The Heat of the Night (1967)

Rod Steiger received his third Oscar nomination and won his only Oscar for playing Gillespie, a police chief assigned to work with a black detective to investigate a murder case in a racially hostile southern town. I’m obviously not an expert at analysing Oscar races like some people are (never read Inside Oscar, for starters) but from what I gather, Steiger was pretty much what you call the frontrunner for the award. He won a lot of the precursor awards, and I really don’t think Dustin Hoffman (my pick for this year) was that much of a threat since he was still a relative newcomer. Paul Newman might have threatened him since it was his fourth nomination and zero win. Were they willing to give Spencer Tracy his third Oscar, given how Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was his final film role, and this was a posthumous nomination for him ? I really don’t know.

For a best picture winner, In The Heat of the Night isn’t really talked about, but I think it is a terrific film that is definitely worth watching at least once by film fans. It’s not on a legendary level like The Godfather, but I really enjoyed it and I wouldn’t mind watching it again. The direction, for starters, is fantastic. It’s like you can almost feel the hot, humid air of the town, and it feels as though time has slowed down because of how backwards everything is, but at the same time there is this sinister, brutal and oppressive atmosphere. I still would have voted for Mike Nichol’s work in The Graduate, but this one is worthy as well, making this one of my favourite splits between director and picture, the other year being 1972. The racism theme is very well-handled and integrated into the central story line, never feeling manipulative or heavy-handed coughs* The Butler *coughs*. Performances wise, Sidney Poitier is fantastic. He gives my favourite performance in the entire film, and I simply cannot believe that he wasn’t nominated at all. Of course, the screenplay has its shaky moments (well that’s what people say but personally I had no problems), and the acting by some of the supporting cast can be a bit funny, like that Delores Purdy girl who “WENT TOO FAR” with her acting at times, but it wasn’t on a level that distracted. Lee Grant was not bad, but I didn’t go crazy over her performance like some did. It’s a good, solid performance (a bit calculated though) that served the movie well.

As such, you can imagine that when I first watched this movie, I was so taken by Poitier’s work that Steiger’s performance felt a bit underwhelming. However, as I got to mull over it, his performance did grow on me, and now I think it’s great. In fact, I do think it matches up with Poitier’s work, but Poitier had the advantage of a more likable character and a very strong screen presence, so much so that whenever they share a scene together I found myself more taken by Poitier. I mean, how can anyone forget that “They call me Mister Tibbs!” line? The whole air of sophistication, class, intelligence and toughness he brings to the part is just amazing.

From what I read on IMDB boards (horrible, I tell you), Rod Steiger seems to be criticised nowadays as a very hammy and over-the-top actor. Well, people are entitled to their opinions of course, but I personally don’t agree. Yes his acting can be very LOUD and he sure loves to shout in his movies, but I think that he can be a real force on screen when he in top form. People praise Marlon Brando for the car scene in On The Waterfront, and there’s no doubt he was brilliant, but I think Steiger had his share of making that scene work as well. And anyway, even in his hammy performances, I find him super entertaining to watch. I mean, his screaming in The Amityville Horror was probably scarier than the movie itself LOL. To put it simply, I like him a lot as an actor and I’m willing to discover more of his works 🙂

There are a lot of external details to Steiger’s performance here; the “chewing”, the poses and stances, the way he wears his cap, the accent etc. To some, this may be “obvious” mannerisms and acting, but I think it worked because he makes Gillespie such a fascinating character. Actually, what I appreciated the most about his performance here is the amount of unseen depth he adds to the role. The way the subtle moments are blended with his external mannerisms makes the performance a fully realised one. From the beginning, Gillespie seems like one of the town people; he’s horribly racist and unbelievably incompetent as a police officer. However, as the story progresses and circumstances force him to cooperate with Tibbs, you get this feeling that this man is actually unhappy with his life, and he is merely putting up a tough facade to accommodate the culture of his town. He may be incompetent, and he does want to take the easy way out at times, but at the same time you can feel that he does take his job seriously and is willing to continue investigating when proven wrong. What is great about the performance is that this is all suggested but never explicitly stated until a scene towards the end where both characters were having a conversation in Gillespie’s home.

His interaction and “chemistry” with Poitier is excellently handled as well. Steiger uses these opportunities to suggest that there is something more to Gillespie than what it seems on the surface, right from his palpable humiliation in the beginning at being outsmarted by a black man. He seems a bit too eager to solve the case easily, like when he tries to push the blame one of his officers Sam Wood. This of course says a lot about him as a law enforcement officer, but I always get the feeling that Gillespie is doing so as a way of protecting Tibbs, by trying to force him to leave now that the case is “solved”. He knows that the legal situation in his town is beyond hope, and he always tries to prove it to Tibbs by trying to make him accept the current situation and leave before he comes to any harm himself. This is never stated explicitly, and yet you can feel it as he desperately tells Tibbs that the evidence is clear enough. Furthermore, his portrayal itself is free of cliches and is realistically handled. It could have been a standard  “white people learn that black people are not that bad, hence form friendship of a lifetime” revelation (Crash?) but instead you really feel the respect Gillespie has for Tibbs grow slowly and steadily, despite his open annoyance with him.  The final scene where he tells Tibbs to take care could have been so cheesy, but instead it was very heartfelt and moving. Of course, this excellent relationship development is not without Poitier’s great cooperation, since he was the one who is driving the investigation forward and “proving” himself, but I still think that without Gillespie changing his atittude towards Tibbs throughout the whole process, the whole thing would have failed.

All in all this is still a terrific, Oscar-deserving performance by Rod Steiger, even if he is not necessarily my pick for this year (Hoffman was just too fantastic in The Graduate). That being said, I love the subtle layers he adds to this performance beneath the mannerisms and the accents, making Gillespie a much more complex character than one would expect. Great job that is definitely worth watching.

I’m going to go slow on the 70s best picture project and take a break for a while. Forcing myself to watch too many movies at one shot like a movie marathon can be quite time consuming and restrictive, especially because I always feel obligated to watch the best picture nominees and not other films I’m interested in. I’m going to take some time to discover some other brilliant performances that I have yet to seen :).


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