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In The Heat Of The Night
Commentaries on this disc:
Director Norman Jewison, and actors Lee Grant, Rod Steiger, and Haskell Wexler
Rating:9.0/10 (1 vote) [
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Reviewed by Jay Olie Espy on September 12th, 2007
Find all reviews by Jay Olie Espy
Contributing to the commentary track of this five-Oscar winning picture is the Best Actor winner Rod Steiger, Best Director nominee Norman Jewison, previous Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and from the Actor’s Studio, Lee Grant, making this track a treasure. Each of their contribution enriches an already deeply-appreciated film.
Norman Jewison shares why he made the film and shares his take on its historical context. Although at the time of filming, Jewison had no idea how historical IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) would become, even when meeting then-attorney general Robert Kennedy at a hospital (both their sons were recovering from skiing accidents) who told him “This could be an important film. Timing is everything.” And timing was everything, as Norman Jewison points out that 1967 fell in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, marches and demonstrations—a cause that people were dying for. Jewison, Wexler, the actors, the crew, all as artists, were motivated by the commitment to social change.
Norman Jewison gives brief filmmaking notes on the this track. For one thing, the film was shot on a budget of 2.6 million dollars, which Jewison reveals gave him more creative spontaneity. For example, the “Freight Train” chase scene was done impromptu. Other points of interest are his research on corpses and directing his actors, especially Rod Steiger.
Not to discredit Jewison’s contribution to the commentary track, but Haskell Wexler’s discourse is the track’s centerpiece. Wexler tells us that HEAT was his first color feature coming off documentaries, and in fact shot the film as if it were black and white. In talking about photography, he points out techniques used for special effects lighting such as in the credit sequence, how he captured reflection within glass, and nuances in lighting not recognized by the untrained viewer. Wexler even goes so far to talk about the challenges of photographing the dark-skinned Sydney Poitier. Even though Wexler sometimes gets technical with camera models, it’s not enough for the viewer not to have a deeper appreciation for Wexler’s work.
In the latter half of the track, Haskell Wexler waxes about his role in activism during the Civil Rights movement. In the commentary, he reveals that when he reviewed his file via the Freedom of Information Act, the government listed him as a “subversive,” particularly because of his support of federal anti-lynching laws. Sure the role of the filmmaker is to make money, he says, but the moviemaker’s film should also show social progression. Wexler states that “as artists we wanted to express what we felt about the country.” Wexler, Jewison, and the crew set out to create a “patriotic film.”
Norman Jewison, too, was known as an activist, as well as Lee Grant. Within the commentary, we find out through Wexler that he and Jewison possibly met at an activist march. And in the track, Jewison makes strong statement that social change happens through the people and not through its leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr. And much like Wexler, Lee Grant acknowledges her long political background that resulted in a blacklisting that hurt her career.
Lee Grant’s comments are as brief as her screen time within the film, but are just as inspiring. Grant, a product of the Actor’s Studio, elaborates on how she brought emotion to a character that couldn’t be developed. Listeners will find interesting that she went into character by relating to the loss of her own husband. She even had strands of hair from her late husband placed into the brush her character holds.
Rod Steiger’s contribution is disappointingly brief, but contributes the heavy discourse about racism with his humor. Steiger’s voice is marked with coarse vocals from age. He tells us about how he turned the gum-chewing cliché into a representation of feelings. We know how Gillespie’s character feels by the way he chews his gum. “He wanted to be left alone,” Steiger says about Gillespie, “and chew his fucking gum. And at first, we only think Steiger is joking when he says that Jewsion tried to feed him pecan pie to blow up his gut and let it hang over his belt, but Jewison later confirms it.
Obviously missing from the commentary track is Sidney Poitier, but the others, mainly pointing out Poitier’s experiences as a black actor, fill in his presence. Rod Steiger calls him a fine actor because of the social pressures Poitier faced. Poitier was “The Prince of the People,” Steiger explains, but Poitier hated it, as the label confined his life and “couldn’t do anything.” Lee Grant declares that Sydney Poitier was the “only” black actor for 15 years. Mainly it is Steiger who fleshes out Poitier. Steiger’s anecdote about the drunk, shotgun-wielding, 17 year-old looking for his wife in Poitier’s suite will keep you on edge.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT carries a top-notch commentary track by it’s A-listers. Listeners will get technical information, filmmaking notes, actor insights, social commentary, and amusing anecdotes. It is a wonderful addition to such an important historical film.
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