(On Cable TV, November 2017) Whenever I tackle an older film, I usually curse my lack of knowledge of the era and my imperfect understanding of the context surrounding the film. But in the case of In the Heat of the Night, I’m actually proud and thankful that I don’t have a deep understanding of the pervasive and violent southern racism that the film portrays. Built around a murder mystery in small-town Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night is really an issues drama, as a competent police officer from Philadelphia is semi-voluntarily asked to help with the investigation. The legendary Sidney Poitier stars as “They call me Mister Tibbs,” a gifted cop whose skills are dismissed by the locals due to his skin colour, and who gets into increasingly violent confrontations with those who wish he’d go away. The murder mystery is perfunctory, but it definitely takes a back seat to the social issues illustrated throughout the plot. Thankfully, there is some good character work along the way that helps make the film more than simply a moral lesson—The protagonist has significant flaws (pride, mostly) that are pointed out by other characters, and the lead sheriff’s (Rod Steiger) evolution from stone-cold racism to honest admiration is handled organically. Colourful minor characters help establish the torrid atmosphere of a southern town in the middle of a heat wave. Competent filmmaking, headed by director Norman Jewison (a Canadian, one notes), make much of the film look and feel just as compelling as it was back then. From a contemporary perspective, much of the movie, and the locals’ reaction to the protagonist, defies comprehension and almost approaches caricature—I’m glad to live in a world where that stuff isn’t as acceptable any more. In the Heat of the Night is a Best Picture Oscar winner and it’s easy to see why—even today, it blends genre entertainment with a strong social conscience, through compelling performances and good production savviness.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) For a movie that’s nearly forty years old, And Justice for All still works remarkably well. It’s recognizably from the late seventies, but it tackles evergreen notions of idealism versus cynicism, as exemplified by an impetuous lawyer (Al Pacino, in a career-establishing performance) stuck between his ideals and the realities of the judicial system. It’s very darkly humorous (call it a courtroom drama with a body count) but it doesn’t make the mistake of being nihilistic: throughout, we can cheer for our protagonist as obstacles pop up. Pacino is terrific, director Norman Jewison keeps everything at a slow boil, old-school veteran John Forsythe makes for a loathsome villain, Christine Lahti is good in her big-screen debut and Jeffrey Tambor also pops up as an unhinged lawyer. (Almost all of the characters are unhinged in their own way, but that’s the film.) While the script is riddled with contrivances and satirical moments, it’s that bigger-than-life quality that gives And Justice For All it peculiar charm and timeless appeal.
(In French, On TV, June 2015) What annoys me the most about earnest, well-made, socially-conscious films is the lousy feeling I get when I’m less than entirely positive about them. There’s little actually wrong about The Hurricane, the story of a black boxer, Rubin Carter, imprisoned for a triple murder he is said not to have committed. (The historical record, outside the film, is considerably less affirmative.) That story picks up decades later when a young black man decides to take up the cause of the imprisoned Carter, eventually becoming a lawyer and freeing him. It’s a technically accomplished film, with veteran Canadian director Norman Jewison at the helm (it’s a bit of a nationalistic thrill seeing the Toronto waterfront being presented as-is) and it couldn’t wish for a better performance from Denzel Washington as Carter. And yet, as I watched the film, I just couldn’t get into it –the emotional beats seemed not only blatant, but overused; the do-gooders a bit too saintly; the narrative a bit too neat and predictable. It’s also interminable, especially if you don’t entirely commit to the subject matter. I’m not dismissing the film –I’m simply reporting on my reaction. The Hurricane is successful at what it attempts, but as far as I’m concerned it falls flat. I hope your own reaction differs.