I’ve seen two movies in recent days that I can’t shake. Both are late-1960’s films about a stranger in a hostile and unfamiliar place who, through an unlikely relationship, discovers unknown darkness and lightin himself and in others. My emotional response to each movie was contradictoryintense and contradictory feelings of revulsion, pity, rage, mirth, hope, sorrow. Both raise the question: Under what circumstances and to what degree is it possible for a person to change?
"In the Heat of the Night" (1967) features Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia cop who, while passing through Sparta, Miss., is accused of killing one of the town’s most prominent citizens. After establishing his innocence, Tibbs decides to stay and help solve the case, motivated by a desire to upstage the red-neck chief of police, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), who tells him, "I guess you’re too smart to pass up an opportunity like this, ain’t ya, boy?"
Before long two things seem clear to Tibbs. The bigoted owner of a cotton plantation, who has the town, including Gillespie, in his pocket, is responsible for the murder; and Gillespie will be of no use to Tibbs in solving the case. Through the stormy, racially charged relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie, the unexpected truth emerges. It turns out Gillespie is more and less than he appears, willing to question long-held racist attitudes. Likewise, Tibbs’s ability to solve the murder, which has nothing to do with race, turns on his capacity to admit he was wrong, to get outside the circle of his own prejudices, his own obsession with color, his own vulnerability and outrage.
A story about race and the darkness of institutional evil attitudes, it is even more a study of the discovery of darkness within and the longing for reconciliation with oneself. And it is about finding truth in oneself through another; about finding one’s way in not by slaying the enemy but by seeing himand oneselfafresh.
At first blush, "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) is the archetypal tale of the country bumpkin eaten alive by the Big Apple. But Joe Buck, the aspiring cowboy-gigolo who is at once so bold and so naive, manages to confound our expectationsand his own. Buck is as stubborn as he is guileless, yet the film hinges on the change wrought in him through his unlikely friendship with Rizzo, the hardened, street-smart con artist who initially played Buck for the fool he was. Forced into shared squalor by indigence, the two men forge a bond that springs more from emotional than physical destitution. They’re drifters, neither of whom had any moorings to lose. Each seems to be the first to see the other as something more than a caricature and an object of abuse. Buck, who identifies himself as an irresistible sexual commodity, dreams less of making his fortune than of escaping his past, a wrenching tapestry of neglect, loneliness and violation. The hapless Rizzo, perpetually grimy, lame and a physical wreck, dreams of moving to Florida where he can lose himself and make himself anew.
Each equally incapable of becoming inured to the pain of his loneliness and the failure of his dreams, they share a soulful, unspoken weariness of the pall cast over their lives, the aimless, smothering identity neither can escape. Rizzo’s deteriorating health brings out a tender devotion in Buck that serves as a counterpoint to the film’s preponderance of betrayal, sexual misalliance and unfulfilled longing for intimacy. In the end Buck selflessly relinquishes his dream for his friend’s sake; losing his meticulously cultivated cowboy image, he finds his identity. Rizzo’s illness forces him likewise to shed his hard-won, hard-edged persona; he fulfils his dream but loses his life.
It is this sort of untidy contradiction that attracts and haunts me in both these films. Because while in life I need predictability, in art I want the discomfiting, the unsanitized. Both films depict a pair of characters whose hearts are broken open, making way for a devastating glimpse into an inner darkness. The appearance of "night" in both titles is telling. Assumptions challenged, prejudices shattered, blind spots revealedthis is the stuff of flesh-and-blood.
In Tibbs and Gillespie, Buck and Rizzo, and most of us, beneath the layers of self-assurance and self-protection fester deeply ingrained insecurities about self and self-worth. Though I admire the fact that these films deal bluntly and uncomfortably with sex and race, the reason I find them unusually compelling is their portrayal of headstrong characters thrust into circumstances that embody contradiction, resist solution, spawn violenceand ultimately engender change. While impotent and myopic alone, in relationship each character comes to realize if not resolution then at least new depth and possibility.
Sexual abuse and deeply recalcitrant bigotry can hardly be called refreshing subject matter. Yet I relish these films for the way they unsettle me. Instead of multimillion-dollar special effects and gratuitous flesh that merely shock and titillate, these two low-budget gems are disturbing in the richest sense of the word.
Thomas J. McCarthy