Although 1967 was a very good year for film and well-represented on the American Film Institute's Top 100 list with "The Graduate," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," guess which movie from that year didn't make the controversial list?
It's the one that managed to beat out the others for the best picture Oscar: "In the Heat of the Night."
While not as chic as "The Graduate" or as subversive as "Bonnie and Clyde" or as preachy as "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "In the Heat of the Night" was a movie with subtle social significance, espousing racial equality not as a heavy-handed message but wrapped in a murder mystery set in the South--just a few years removed from the time when Jim Crow laws were still being enforced there.
Considering the talented ensemble of filmmakers (producer Walter Mirisch, screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, director Norman Jewison, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby) and actors (Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant and Warren Oates), no wonder it turned out so well. It was '60s filmmaking at its moody, mainstream best, earning Oscars for Steiger, Silliphant and Ashby, among others.
Thanks to a wonderfully restored print (recently screened at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), the intelligence, craft and dignity of "In the Heat of the Night" resonates more clearly--something we can appreciate now when the decibel level of many Hollywood films far exceeds their larger worth.
The impact of seeing the new print of "Heat" is due in no small part because of the work by MGM/UA's Gray Ainsworth, the Academy Film Archive's Michael Friend and the specialists at Cinetech and EDS Digital, who rescued the film from looking as dark and cloudy as Mississippi mud.
Since the original negative was too faded to print from, the restorers turned to the next best thing: the separation protection masters. (These special black and white printing elements also contain information for certain colors.)
These were recombined into a new negative. However, some of the more extreme problems required digital repair, including the removal of an ugly green scratch across Poitier's face during his famous "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" declaration.
"It wasn't a difficult restoration, thanks to the separations, but it was a good test case for when to use digital and when to use photochemical," Friend explains. "We used digital only when we had to, which kept the cost down. Now the film has good, authentic color again and MGM/UA will be able to take advantage of the print.
"Seeing it again, you realize what a passionate, lucid ensemble work it is, perfectly capturing the ideology of American liberalism before Chicago '68."
But more than anything, it's the humanity of the protagonists--Poitier's urbane Philadelphia detective and Steiger's edgy Mississippi sheriff--which makes the film so enduring. Their every action reveals either pride or prejudice, conveyed by the marvelous chemistry between Poitier and Steiger whose Oscar-winning performance is deceptively complex. It is a film of rhythms and reversals, revolving around a pas de deux between these two complementary actors.
As Poitier pointed out at his tribute, the distinctive rhythms also include a great number of pauses when characters are compelled to think about the consequences of their actions. Such reflective moments can't happen in a vacuum, they demand the collaborative discipline of everyone involved. One of the most powerful pauses occurs when Poitier informs Grant of her husband's murder. She turns a mundane moment into a slow, tortuous shock of recognition. And it couldn't have happened without Poitier's generosity.
Friend admits this integral scene was tough to restore because of Wexler's experimental look. "It has this weird color shift when the camera zooms in on her and it loses the light. We talked to the color timer who worked with Wexler to make sure we got it right."
Friend appreciated not having a deadline, working on and off for two years on restoring the film. In fact, this is one of several restoration projects the academy has in conjunction with the studios as part of its mandate to save select Oscar-winning films. For example, "Oliver!," the best picture winner for 1968, is currently being restored with the help of Sony Pictures.
"This is a step-by-step process we're undertaking," Friend adds. "We are trying to get involved where we can be productive--and there are a lot of movies to consider."
So will the restored "Heat" ever return to theaters?
"We're mulling it over," Ainsworth says. "Our new philosophy is, what do we do as far as theatrical reissue business? We need to make a decision. We're still doing everything we can to preserve these films. If it's any indication, the response to the screening was very good."
But at the very least, "Heat" appears destined for new life on home video (including the possibility of DVD). "It's so relevant today, and the essence of the humor comes through even more," Ainsworth adds.