In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1967 winner In the Heat of the Night. Is it better than Crash?
Sometimes I look through the list of nominees for a year and I’m blown away. 1967 is just such a year, since The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde both came out, and lost, to In the Heat of the Night. It’s really pointless to argue what the best movie in that trio is — some would say it’s pointless to compare them all to some dumb movie about racism but those people are wrong we’re gonna do this damnit.
There’s a chance you only know a few things about In the Heat of the Night. Maybe you just know Sidney Poitier’s “they call me Mister Tibbs” line. Mister Tibbs himself has to work with an all-white police department in Mississippi to get to the bottom of a particularly complicated murder case. That’s Rod Steiger as the town sherriff who certainly doesn’t think he needs help from a city boy, up there in the photo. There’s a lot more going on than the black-guy-in-the-South drama of man vs. just about damned everybody, but that’s the best part.
It’s part mystery and part racial play, and it’s excellent at both. It stays tense — there’s a ton of twists as Poitier and Steiger get closer to figuring out what actually happened — and it does so in more ways than one. Every time I expected a heavy handed treatment of race in a situation I was surprised. Right down to the eventual physical fight where Poitier has to literally run away from racists, it’s difficult, but it’s all the better for it.
I’m from the South and I was home this weekend for a visit. I generally tell people that the South is everything they think it is, and that that means whatever you need it to mean, depending on the situation. I can’t say my world was Poitier’s world, but it feels like a real one. It’s important to remember that not all racists are obvious villains and that hate isn’t always as clear as stories make it seem. Crash is offensive because it wants to tell this same lesson, but it does so with a megaphone rather than a reasoned argument. In the Heat of the Night is almost contemplative by comparison. It’s a movie about race and about solving a murder, but it’s about how we interact with “the other,” as well. That part is what will stick with you.
The Best Part: Our heroes go to investigate the motives of one of the dead man’s enemies, and the conversation turns hostile once he knows what they’re asking. It’s 1967. Remember that when you watch this two-minute clip. Pull up a list of other things that happened in 1967 for context. Smear the number “1967” on a mirror in red lipstick and then watch this video next to it. Well, maybe not that, but just think about the world around these two men, and how people must have reacted when they saw this:
The Worst Part: The leads are both excellent, but most of the supporting cast is downright goofy. The town of Sparta, Mississippi is supposed to be ridiculous but it’s probably not supposed to be as silly as I found it. I honestly loved In the Heat of the Night, but c’mon, guys. This is me grasping at straws, but everyone other than Poitier and Steiger is largely interchangeable. Ignore this section. Go watch that slap video again. Pow!
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There is a scene where the two men bond with some good drink and try to get to the bottom of the whole mess. That scene is in every movie, and it usually is so obvious. This one adds some important depth to Steiger’s character, who easily could have just been a white cop that says “dagflabbit” and “boy-ah” a lot. He’s more than that, and you notice it play out slowly over the movie, it just finally pops in that big scene. These are the small pieces that make up smart movies. These are the quiet, but significant, chunks of great storytelling. Crash is loud and big and dumb in the exact opposite ways. There is no nuance to Crash, and I can’t think of a better example of “no, do it like this” than In the Heat of the Night, which came out nearly 40 years earlier.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.