Thursday, July 19, 2012

They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) & The Organization (1971)

          Seeing as how the Oscar-nominated thriller In the Heat of the Night (1967) is best remembered today for its bold portrayal of race relations—when a racist white character slaps a black detective, the black detective shocks onlookers by slapping the racist back—it’s peculiar that both sequels to In the Heat of the Night are so tame by comparison. Although these follow-up films superficially delve into racial politics, they’re primarily action-packed police procedurals. In fact, it’s hard to think of another movie series in which latter titles bear so little stylistic and thematic resemblance to the original picture. Even the home base of the series’ hero changed from the first movie to the second: When audiences first encountered Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), he operated out of Philadelphia, yet in They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! and The Organization, he’s a member of the San Francisco Police Department.
          Moreover, while the original film is an intelligent drama with sophisticated camerawork and music, Tibbs is basically a blaxploitation picture, with its gritty urban setting and percolating score. The Organization tacks in yet another direction, presenting a straightforward cop story. If not for the continuity of Poitier appearing in all three movies, it would be hard to recognize any tether between them.
          Of the sequels, Tibbs is moderately better simply because it offers a sensationalistic stew of sleazy storylines. (Say that three times fast!) Tibbs is assigned to find out who killed a prostitute, but he’s conflicted because the prime suspect is his pal, Logan Thorpe (Martin Landau), an activist priest working for liberal causes that Tibbs supports. The effective supporting cast includes the always-entertaining Anthony Zerbe as a violent pimp, plus TV favorites Ed Asner (Lou Grant) and Garry Walberg (Quincy, M.E.). Moreover, the picture introduces the recurring characters of Tibbs’ wife (Barbara McNair) and children, who were absent from the first picture; while grounding the detective in everyday reality, the normalcy of these characters also drains some of Tibbs’ mythic qualities. It doesn’t help that the script, credited to Alan Trustman and James R. Webb, twists awkwardly toward an overheated finale. Tibbs isn’t bad, as disposable police thrillers go, but it’s hardly a worthy extension of In the Heat of the Night.
          The next picture, written by Webb and John Ball, the author of the original novel In the Heat of the Night and therefore the creator of the Tibbs character, goes lighter on the skeeviness while drifting into the bland mainstream of everyday cop pictures. The convoluted narrative of The Organization involves Tibbs investigating a company that’s fronting for a drug operation, and there’s a bit too much screen time devoted to Tibbs’ home life, accentuating the undercooked nature of the main storyline. Plus, the more filmmakers pulled Tibbs away from racially charged milieus, the more it became apparent that Tibbs wasn’t a particularly strong character. The novelty of his first appearance, and to a lesser degree his second, was defined by his clash with racist power structures. Stripped of this powerful opposing force, Tibbs is just another onscreen tough guy with a badge.
          As such, it’s not surprising the franchise went fallow after these two diverting but forgettable pictures; although Ball continued writing novels and short stories about Tibbs well into the ’80s, the character didn’t reappear onscreen until 1988, when In the Heat of the Night was adapted into a moderately successful TV series. Troubled actor Howard Rollins played Tibbs until Rollins was fired from the show in 1993, and the series continued for two more years without the character.

They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!: FUNKY
The Organization: FUNKY

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