Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Film: In the Heat of the Night

Recently, I wrote a piece about John Ball’s 1965 novel, In the Heat of the Night. Several days later, a cable channel ran the 1967 movie based on the book.

The movie I had seen before, but watching it again so close to having finished the novel made for an interesting comparison.

The book and screen stories are about a black man, mistakenly arrested for murder in a town in the American south, who turns out to be a cop. Virgil Tibbs, the black detective, is asked to help the local police chief, Bill Gillespie, in the murder investigation. Tibbs stays, and his presence causes sparks to fly in a town unused to dealing with an African-American as an equal, let alone an authority.

Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and director Norman Jewison wisely kept the structure of the mystery and even more wisely kept some of the best lines from the book, particularly, “I’m a police officer,” and “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” But the filmmakers veered away from the book in adapting it for the screen. Again, wisely, they created more drama and more dramatic scenes between Tibbs and Gillespie, played by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. They also took away the only ally Tibbs had in the novel, a rich and powerful man named Endicott. In the movie, Endicott is the county’s wealthiest resident and his cotton empire is the major employer. Reimagining him as a bigoted Big Daddy brings about a conflict with Tibbs that so shocks Endicott that he has to confirm the incident by asking Gillespie, “Did you see that?” To which Gillespie responds, “I saw it…” and actor Steiger leaves off the usual completion of the phrase, “…but I don’t believe it.”

At that point in the story, Tibbs won a grudging respect from Gillespie, who is losing his balance and is now putting the law and good police work ahead of the traditional racial biases.

Steiger did a great job of playing the middle-aged southern cop who changes during the course of the story. As in the book, Gillespie is a newly appointed police chief and over his head when it comes to major crimes. As played by Steiger, he seems to have been a former motorcycle cop (his tinted glasses and his trousers tucked into his boots give that impression) who thinks he can control the town the way he controlled speeding motorists.

The movie’s Virgil Tibbs is more aggressive than the book’s when it comes to showdowns with Gillespie. Their scenes together make this movie soar.

The filmmakers made a few other changes for the film. They set the town in Mississippi, where the book mentioned it being somewhere in the Carolinas. They added a chase scene when a suspect is tracked down. They also amped up a fight scene and the climax of the movie. Some of the characters were changed, including the murdered man. They also dropped several characters or reduced them to supporting roles, like Officer Sam Wood, who plays a central part in the book.

“In the Heat of the Night” hit theaters at a time when civil rights were on the news every evening. Americans saw southern cops turning fire hoses on protestors and threatening them with police dogs. Activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. The movie, “Mississippi Burning,” was based on that case. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. One year after “In the Heat of the Night” came out, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. It was a violent and dangerous time in America.

As a kid growing up in the North, I remember teenagers talking worriedly about plans to go on spring break in Florida. To get there, they would have to drive through several southern states where they feared cops like Chief Gillespie would not look kindly on “hippie long hairs.” Even if their hair was not that long, they were still Yankees.

Strangely, just three years after the release of the movie, Dodge, the car company, came out with a television commercial in which a southern cop pulls over a young (white) fellow driving a new, 1970 Challenger. The spot made fun of the cop who in a few short years had become a cliché and a joke. Several years after that, Jackie Gleason played a comic version of a small-town southern police chief chasing Burt Reynolds in 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit.”

But in 1967, when “In the Heat of the Night” came out, that kind of cop was no joke.

(For more posts on movies and television, see Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

FFB: In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

John Ball’s 1965 Edgar Award winning In the Heat of the Night is a book I owned but never read because I knew the 1967 film so well. I thought it would be impossible to separate the actors in the movie from the characters in the book. As it turned out, Ball’s depiction of Police Chief Bill Gillespie of a small, southern town, and Detective Virgil Tibbs from a big city were physically and at times temperamentally different enough to create new mental images of the two men.

In the book, Gillespie and Tibbs are thrown together when Tibbs, while waiting for a train in the middle of the night is picked up on suspicion of murder. The police, including Chief Gillespie, who are white, treat Tibbs, who is black, in the gruff, demeaning manner that was all too common in the south in those days.

When the cops learn that Tibbs is a police officer from Pasadena, California, and that he is a homicide detective, their insular little word is shaken. Most of the staff and many in the town cannot believe that a black man could be a police officer anywhere in America. To further upset them, the wealthiest man in town, Endicott, who moved there from the North, insists that Chief Gillespie contact Pasadena and request Tibbs be loaned to Gillespie’s department to solve the murder case.

The murdered man was an orchestra conductor Endicott invited to organize a summer music festival. The mayor and council agreed to the plan and hoped it would attract tourists and boost the town’s economy.

Under pressure from the city fathers, Chief Gillespie reluctantly agrees to let Tibbs head the homicide investigation.

In the Heat of the Night is not only a good murder mystery, it is also a slice of American history frozen in time. The treatment of Tibbs is especially well drawn by Ball. Only Endicott calls him, Mr. Tibbs. Everyone else calls him Virgil, out of habit and to show they consider him an inferior person. Tibbs, they soon learn, has more education, more police training, more experience and more character than almost anyone else in the town.

The book has three main characters: Virgil Tibbs, Chief Gillespie, and Officer Sam Wood, the cop who discovered the body of the murdered man. Ball presents most of his story through the eyes and thoughts of Gillespie and Wood. These two police men are similar: both are tall and powerful; both are young, 32 and 29; and both are southern. During the course of the novel, they are the characters who change the most. Gillespie and Wood work closely with Tibbs, get to know him, and come to respect him. Scenes involving Tibbs without Gillespie or Wood, remain objective and Virgil Tibbs' thoughts are never revealed other than through observations of his behavior.

Ball, the author of more than 30 novels, went on to write seven more Virgil Tibbs books.

Fifty years after its publication, In the Heat of the Night is still relevant and still packs a punch.

(For more old and possibly forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Film: “The Big Combo” the End of Film Noir

The crime picture, “The Big Combo,” is so chock-full of noir elements it is almost a parody of that film style.

Hitting theaters when it did, in 1955, makes it one of the last movies of the film noir era. That era – the dates are constantly argued – goes from the end of WW2 to about 1955, when the form ran out of gas and tastes changed. Some say film noir started in 1944 with Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” and ended with Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” in 1958. Others claim earlier and later start and end dates. Whatever the time frame, “The Big Combo” shows the genre coming apart at the seams.

Shot in shadowy black and white by ace cinematographer John Alton, “The Big Combo” is the story of Lt. Diamond, a police detective, played by Cornell Wilde, with twin obsessions – he wants to rid his city of a racketeer named Brown and he desperately wants Brown’s girlfriend, Susan, played by Jean Wallace.

Brown, played by Richard Conte, also has twin obsessions – he wants to be the biggest wheel in the city and he must have sex with Susan, the former society girl now living with Brown. He nearly loses control whenever he is around her, and his touch sends her into a sexual fog. In one scene, Brown practically breaks her neck in the roughest screen kiss ever. In interviews, director Joseph H. Lewis said he pushed the Hollywood production code further than anyone ever had with those scenes. But they are so overwrought that they border on the comical.

In supporting roles as Brown’s hired guns, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play heartless killers who also share a bedroom. Veteran tough-guy, Brian Donlevy, is a resentful second in command of Brown’s empire, and through no fault of his, Donlevy’s final scene is so bad that he must have needed the paycheck. Helene Stanton has a nice turn as a leggy chorus girl obsessed with Diamond.

Diamond, the tormented cop, has a smiling, untrustworthy superior, played by Robert Middleton, who is constantly trying to cool down the detective, to the point of killing Diamond’s investigation into a disappearance that Diamond believes was a murder committed by Brown.

Lust, corruption, crime, and violence all play into “The Big Combo,” and are barely contained by director Lewis, who also made “Gun Crazy” and was no stranger to modestly budgeted crime films. He usually handled atmosphere and action well, but in “The Big Combo” he stages a torture scene that is so ludicrous that it damages the remainder of the movie. The dramatic scenes are presented in long, uninterrupted takes with his actors speeding through their lines.

Rushing through Philip Yordan’s script was a mistake. He should have trusted Yordan, a reliable Hollywood vet. (Yordan was also a hero for serving as a “front” for blacklisted friends the 1950s, putting his name on their scripts and selling them to the studios, then turning the money over to the writers so they could make a living.)

Yordan’s stylized lines usually sound great in films like this, and many of them come through fine in “The Big Combo.” For instance, when Diamond tries to convince Susan to leave Brown, she tells him:

“I live in a maze, Mr. Diamond, a strange, blind, and backward maze. And all the little, twisting paths lead back to Mr. Brown.”

Now is that noir dialog, or what?

(For more posts on films and television, please see Todd Mason’s blog.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

TV: Excellent Mystery Series "Broadchurch"

In a string of comments last week about the mini-series, “The Night Manager,” and its excellent cast, Col, of Col’s Criminal Library, recommended another crime series called “Broadchurch,” which also stars Olivia Colman.

Until this spring, this actress was unknown to me. Until last Friday, this excellent show was unknown to me. (Somehow, I missed the promotional push it got in 2013 when it aired on BBC America.) But, if Col was recommending this 8-episode series, then I was going to watch it. And watch it, I did. In fact, my wife and I binged on it for two days. We just had to find out whodunit.

In episode 1, the fictional seaside village of Broadchurch is rocked by the murder of a local, 11-year-old boy. Suddenly, in a town where everyone knows just about everyone else, people start eying other residents with suspicion.

At the regional police department, a newcomer to town, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant, is assigned to the case. Also on the case is long-time resident, Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Colman. Miller, who was hoping to get the DI’s job, is not only disappointed at losing out, but also at having to work with her cold and quirky new boss. Miller, the mother of an 11-year-old boy, also struggles to detach herself emotionally from the case which involves questioning people she has known for years.

To say any more about “Broadchurch” risks spoiling the twists and turns and surprises in this series.

Olivia Colman, who many have the most expressive face on any screen, does a fine job as a woman caught between the job and the town. Tennant also does a good job as the gruff, difficult, and troubled lead detective.

This well written show was created and co-produced by Chris Chibnall, a veteran of British television who wrote for “Doctor Who,” “Law and Order: UK,” and many other shows. He not only creates a compelling mystery, but also populates the show with realistic characters, including the grieving family of the murdered boy.

Another highlight of the show is its location. It was filmed on the southern coast of England, in an area called Dorset where the cliffs are so spectacular I though they may have been created by computer imaging.

“Broadchurch” is an example of just how good television can be.

(For more overlooked films and television shows, visit Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, June 3, 2016

FFB: The Snatchers by Lionel White

Lionel White’s crime novels of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were the next generation of lean, tight stories told in the hardboiled style of Dashiell Hammett. He was a master at devising well-planned heists that sound great, but when executed go wrong.

The Snatchers is one of those stories, only this time the caper is the kidnapping of a little girl, the child of a wealthy Connecticut family.

Cal Dent, a hard, 33-year-old ex con, works out every detail of the kidnapping. His problems come when the team he assembles, Red, a dim ex-boxer, Pearl, a boozy tough cookie, Gino, a violent gangster, and Fats, a conniving trigger man, do not follow Dent’s plans to the letter. Their petty jealousies, hates and lusts lead them astray and put the plan in jeopardy.

Much of the book takes place in a beach cottage where the gang hides out while waiting for ransom money to be delivered. The close living gets on everyone’s nerves. To make matters worse, a small town cop seeing people come and go from the cottage begins to snoop around, heightening the tension. White keeps the whole thing moving at a terrific clip with twits and dangers in every chapter.

Lionel White was a newspaper reporter in the 1920s and 30s, became and editor and went on to edit detective magazines in the 1940s and 50s. He published his first novel in 1952, when he was pushing 50 years old. He went on to write 38 novels. His most well known book is probably Clean Break, later re-titled The Killing. The Snatchers, from 1953, is his second novel.

In his book about director Stanley Kubrick, The Wolf at the Door, Geoffrey Cocks said Kubrick, in the mid-1950s, tried to make a film of The Snatchers, but the Hollywood production code rejected the script he prepared with Jim Thompson. In 1956, Kubrick released one of his best films, “The Killing,” based on Clean Break, from a script written by Thompson. The Snatchers was later filmed in 1968 as “The Night of the Following Day,” starring Marlon Brando.

Now, a few notes on my copy of The Snatchers. Last month, in a little shop of used books I get to a couple times a year, there was a thin, tattered edition of this book squeezed onto a shelf of far newer books. The spine was broken, the pages, and even whole sections were falling out. The lady at the counter looked it over and said she could only charge me 25 cents for an old book in such bad shape.

The cover of this copy is the one pictured and was probably done in the late 1950s, judging by the fins and tail lights on that car. Reading the text, I came to believe the book was edited for British readers. The clues were spellings like programme when describing a radio broadcast, and colour for color, and a word like windscreen during a tense scene involving a windshield wiper that would not function in a rainstorm.

And for the critics who jump on errors in new novels and digital texts, I will just point that this decades-old Avon edition of The Snatchers had several goofs. One of them was a doozy. The name of a character not in a scene was assigned to a line of dialogue.

But The Snatchers is such a tight, well paced novel that a few glitches in its roughly 60,000 words can be forgiven.

This book is a must read for fans of hard boiled crime stories.

(For more forgotten books, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)