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Sidney Poitier Movies

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17 "They Call Me
MISTER Tibbs!" (1970)

A certain amount of disassociation has to be taken into account when watching this first sequel to the classic In The Heat of the Night. Not only does it remove key elements that made the original work so well – the clash with Steiger, and the "fish out of water" aspect – but it brings back the character in a far less cool era. Here bright shirts and kipper ties are all the rage, and Quincy Jones's jaunty, Batmanesque theme, while catchy and proficient, is mismatched with such a sombre film. As a result of all the 70s trappings, it gives the impression that "They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!" is far more kitsch and a "guilty pleasure" than it actually is. Although incredibly disappointing when compared to the original movie, it's actually a decent picture in its own right, if all the distracting fashions can be disregarded. That, and the fact that he's got two kids, one 11 years old, despite the fact that he said he wasn't even married in the original and this is just three years on...
     That said, it's not without moments of unintentional hilarity, with the opening murder seeing a man with both his hands around a girl's throat reaching for a blunt object to beat her with simultaneously. And while you're wondering how he grew the extra arm, you can get a childish snigger out of Tibbs' marital advice, which is far ruder in the UK, where the term "fanny" doesn't mean derriere like it does in the States: "A famous psychologist once said... that if your kids see you pat your wife on the fanny and she looks like she likes it, then it gives them a healthy attitude towards sex."
     There's a wonderfully kitsch moment in the 1972 movie Way of the Dragon where a duel between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris is precipitated by a screaming kitten. Yes, "They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!" contains a moment that's possibly even more great-awful than a kitten introducing mortal combat in an arena: Poitier, taking a beating from a henchman, smashes him over head with a telephone... the action of which causes the theme tune to kick in once more. Although this is shorn of many of the elements that made the original work, it's moments of tacky, dated wonder like a concussion that cues the incidental theme that make this one such an unlikely joy.
     Unlike in the original film, Virgil's district here is not Philadelphia but San Francisco... maybe that's why, despite his claims, and the title of this sequel, out of 57 terms of address (the majority of which are "Virg" and "Lieutenant") he's only actually called "Mr. Tibbs" twice... and that's by one of the villains and a newspaper reporter.

16 The Wilby
Conspiracy (1975)

Poitier stars with Michael Caine in a political thriller that's oddly overlooked. The two stars share some great comic chemistry and some genuinely witty lines. Stories of how Poitier's Shack Twala was electro tortured in prison are rendered blackly comic by their telling, with Poitier showing more genuine comic flair than he ever did mugging opposite Bill Cosby.
     For such serious subjects the film flirts closely with the line between gallows humour and overt comedy, but the wit of the script always keeps it from going overboard. At one point Twala explains how, at school, he discovered Marx and Lenin instead of Mark and Luke and from there "had absolutely no difficulty getting into jail." Handsomely shot with Kenya doubling for South Africa, it's only the rear projection for car/helicopter scenes in Pinewood Studios that detract.
     As the film progresses, the events do start to become more fantastical, and it's difficult to know what's more unbelievable about Persis Khambatta's character... her motivation or the Indian incidental music that follows her around wherever she goes. (A rare sex scene for Poitier sees African drums take over, his own music dominating hers as they become entwined). Similarly, Prunella Gee starts out with a very sensible character but ends up being sexualised more and more as the film progresses. Fortunately it manages to pull the whole thing together with a very good series of twists at the end.

15 A Raisin In
The Sun (1961)

A Raisin in the Sun was a Broadway play with Poitier that opened to acclaim and success in 1959. Featuring a black family who wish to use their inheritance to upscale and move into a white neighbourhood, they incur the prejudice of their potential new neighbours, as well as internal strife in the family unit.
     In both of his first two autobiographies Poitier talks about how difficult an experience the stage production was. Returning to the stage after a decade away, he found himself in a power struggle with the actress Claudia McNeil. Although only just over nine years older than Poitier, she played his mother and believed the matriarch role should be the focal point of the play, a position back by the play's writer, director and producer. Poitier disagreed, arguing that the mother's position doesn't change, but the focal point should the apparent emotional collapse and then redemption of the son. Ruby Dee, the actress playing his wife, agreed somewhat with Sidney's standpoint, but it was a situation where he was largely by himself, the rest of the cast and crew pressured against him.
     Poitier stayed with the play for a six month run, before leaving the production for other work, by which time other actors were ready to take on the role, and McNeil was no longer talking to him. The film version saw many of the stage actors reprise their roles, including Dee and McNeil, and it adds a frisson to proceedings as that tension clearly still hadn't dissipated by the time shooting began. Sadly, it's not the only thing left unchanged from the stage production, as there appears to be little attempt to adapt the play for film and naturalistic screen acting. Scenes which would have brought the house down in theatres, such as Poitier standing on a table pretending to be an African chief, seem over the top on screen. Most of the cast seem to be playing to a seated audience that is no longer there, their projected range not adjusted, and in a small studio, Sidney goes wild, practically devouring the set with gusto.
     It's a shame, because, apart from the occasional corny line - "Kinda like a rainbow after the rain..." – the script by the play's writer, Lorraine Hansberry, is actually a fine one, and says a lot about the human condition. And, despite it all, A Raisin in the Sun is a decent movie. But the enormous potential it had is not realised, and its star is allowed to go too far, giving a performance that would have won an ovation on the stage, but is too "big" for the cinema screen.
     One last note: the family son is played by Steven (here credited as "Stephen") Perry, who memorably played "Henry" in one of the site's favourite Twilight Zone episodes, "The Big Tall Wish". Bolie, Bolie, Bolie! As the daughter's African boyfriend, Joseph Asagai, is played by Bolie himself (Ivan Dixon), then this is quite the Twilight Zone reunion.

14 The Bedford
Incident (1965)

A fatalistic cold war thriller starring Richard Widmark (No Way Out/The Long Ships) as a captain driving his crew to the edge in the hunt for a Russian submarine. Cult fans may get a thrill from seeing a No.2 from The Prisoner (Eric Portman) in a major role, or a minor part for UFO's Ed(ward) Bishop.
     The vast majority of Poitier's film output, particularly in the 50s and 60s, made great headway into the racial prejudices of the age. While prejudice does sadly still exist today, it's not to the extremes of this age, a factor which makes the films both rewarding and dated, often both at the same time. It also limits the parts which Poitier is given to play, in that from the mid-60s onwards, he was increasingly forced into the role of trailblazing black man, and so was given little work which didn't refer to the colour of his skin. The Bedford Incident is a rare exception from the period, where his work as a photojournalist leads him into direct conflict with the captain, without his race ever once being acknowledged. Further discussion of the film's storyline would only lead to spoilers, so let's just say that the climax is unforgettable.

13 No Way Out (1950)

Poitier's first film role proper, and he hits the ground running with an uncompromising depiction of race riots and bigotry. Richard Widmark plays Ray Biddle, a racist crook being treated by Poitier's young intern Dr. Luther Brooks. After Biddle's brother dies from a brain tumour during attempted surgery, he blames Brooks for his death, leading to a quite clever plot no matter how much the script tries to bury it. Widmark (who would express sorrow to Poitier between takes) is called on to scream racial invective at Brooks for nearly all of the film's runtime, and was originally scripted to kill him at the climax. Here the film has possibly even more power today than it did at the time, as the word "n***er" appears a Tarantino-rivalling 23 times (twice by black actors, including Poitier) along with numerous other racial slurs. While deeply startling today, it's staggering to think that it wasn't as unlikely at the time, with even the local Sheriff in the film referring to black people as "Boogies".
     There are some minor issues, such as some laboured monologues and occasionally flatly shot sequences; No Way Out is a minor classic almost despite itself, and hasn't lost the ability to shock, no matter how implausible some of the events depicted. Perhaps the most amusing moment is an inexplicably exaggerated scene where a woman held hostage tricks a deaf man guarding her by turning up her radio full blast... within seconds the neighbours are banging on the ceiling... within 50 seconds of screen time eight of them have kicked the door in. It clearly wasn't a friendly neighbourhood.

12 A Patch Of Blue (1965)

On the surface, A Patch of Blue is a charming love story between Poitier's Gordon Ralfe and Elizabeth Hartman's Oscar-nominated performance as a blind girl, Selina. However, some of the old-fashioned acting styles can disguise just how dark the film is at its core: Ralfe only wants to help Selina, having no real interest in love; and Selina's blindness is a result of her prostitute mother accidentally throwing a glass bottle into her face. Add to this the fact that Selina was raped by one of her mother's clients, and feels guilt and shame as a result.
     For a film as relatively recent as 1965, many of the film-making techniques do hark back to a bygone age: Jerry Goldsmith's incidental score can seem intrusive to modern ears, though received one of the film's five Academy nominations, including Shelley Winters' win for Best Supporting Actress. Winters depicts Selina's mother as a broadly-sketched, thoroughly irredeemable bully, who somehow manages to make domestic violence, in parts, amusing. Her wild fight with her father (Wallace Ford in his last film role, who died the year after) is an hysterical orgy of ornament-throwing chaos, with Winters appearing to break into a smile throughout.
     Ivan Dixon makes his fifth appearance in a Poitier film, following Something of Value, Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun and Sidney's stunt double in The Defiant Ones. Politically active since 1961, he acts as the counterpoint to the so-called "Super Sidney" era that began with Lilies of the Field, chiding his on-screen brother with the words "Man, that's not your job, let whitey educate his own women. They've never given us anything but a hard time." Ultimately the film ends without true redemption for Selina; Ralfe sends her away to get educated (the theme of "achievement through learning" becoming a recurring one throughout Poitier's work) and both remain alone. Such a bittersweet ending is only made worse by the knowledge that the actress suffered from depression in real life, and committed suicide in 1987, aged just 43.

11 The Slender
Thread (1965)

One of the lesser-known Sidney Poitier films, the premise here is as simple as it is effective: a student volunteer at a telephone crisis centre finds himself alone, with a woman on the other end of the line who tells him she's taken an overdose. Such a high-concept narrative is striking, and it's surprising how one man talking on a telephone can keep suspense going... a description which not only applies to this film, but other recent fare such as Phone Booth or Locke.
     However, the film is more than just Sidney talking to a dying woman (Anne Bancroft) as we also see attempts to trace her, and flashbacks to her past. The script by Stirling Silliphant (later the writer of In The Heat of the Night) contains a reasonable recreation of depression, as Inga (Bancroft) obsesses over existentialism and death, and nice lines like "You think not getting caught in a lie is the same as telling the truth?" (A line director Sydney Pollack apparently liked so much that he used it again in his later movies Three Days of the Condor and The Interpreter).
     As with Poitier's other psychological drama from the 60s, Pressure Point, the ending can be said to be a little "neat", but then Inga's husband is still left with the knowledge of what he almost lost, and a mainstream Hollywood film of the mid 60s was unlikely to feature a resolution more overtly dark.

10 Something Of
Value (1957)

Written and directed by Richard Brooks, the same man behind Blackboard Jungle, Something of Value is an uncompromisingly violent depiction of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Sidney Poitier and Rock Hudson star as Kimani Wa Karanja and Peter McKenzie, two men who have been brought up as brothers, only for Kimani to be starkly reminded of the difference between them when a hunter they work with strikes him for "disobedience". The hurt and rejection Kimani feels eventually leads him onto a path where the brothers are opposed, and we are shown both sides of the conflict.
     Criticisms of the film seem to largely centre around Rock Hudson, with many print reviews citing his character as too "pure". But, as with Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, that purity of character is there to act as a direct counterpoint to bigotry, more of a persona in metaphor than an entirely realistic operative within the narrative. Criticism also extends to the fact that he either doesn't try, or wasn't capable, of an English accent for the part. While this does suggest he was cast for star power rather than naturalism, it should also be noted that Poitier clearly doesn't look like an African, and that both were there for box office appeal. This element requires the audience to "buy in" to the concept a little, but once accepted, it's a film that offers much and fully deserves its top ten placing here.
     Lastly, one unsettling aspect of the film today is that the second unit recorded the shooting of a zebra, for which Hudson later filmed the gun firing reaction shots (he didn't personally shoot the zebra in reality). While such actions are hard to accept in an age where, thankfully, humane treatment of animals on film is enforced, it is, unfortunately, far from an exception. While the subject of cruelty to animals will most naturally centre on extreme exploitation movies like Cannibal Holocaust (1980), it also featured in more regular cinema fare, such as genuine rabbit shooting in La Règle du jeu (1939), Buffalo slaughter in Apocalypse Now (1979) or live scorpions being placed in red fire ant colonies in The Wild Bunch (1969). This is not to justify the inclusion of this scene, but to note that real animal cruelty was not, sadly, an isolated incident in this movie. The closing minutes also feature a small child who, while his screams are clearly overdubbed, does appear to be in genuine distress, is placed in potentially harmful situations, and falls over and bumps his face three minutes before the end titles.

9 Pressure Point (1962)

When it comes to a Sidney Poitier film to fly the flag for cult appeal, then Pressure Point is the one. On the face of it, it's a standard psychological melodrama where Poitier's prison psychiatrist treats Bobby Darin's Nazi sympathiser. But the presentation is oddly reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, whereby Darin's mental states are given literal, and often surreal, form. At various stages we see him drowning in a sink plug hole; on the psychiatrist's couch as a small boy (a superbly cast Barry Gordon); or torturing his own imaginary friend.
     Even more head-scratchingly, we get layers within layers, as a mental flashback of Darin's mother is voiced by the child Darin, as the memory is retold to Poitier in the prison, which is in turn told by a much old Poitier to Peter Falk in a perhaps unnecessary bookending plot. The entire film is recounted as justification for Falk's psychiatrist working with a racist patient, whereby a greyed-up Sidney gives his own experience of how such an event occured in his past. Although Poitier acknowledged that the film wasn't going to appeal to a wide audience ("obviously a picture about a black psychiatrist treating white patients was not the kind of sure-fire package that would send audiences rushing into theatres across the country."), the "film within a film within a film" narrative is compelling, and the realisation striking.
     The film takes on a deliberately stage-like narrative throughout several scenes, and while some may stray too far (such as an imaginary elephant in the psychiatrist's office) it keeps the narrative feeling like an offbeat, Zone-like presentation, despite the fact that it's a mask to hide deeper themes. Sometimes they're submerged, such as suggestions that Darin was abused as a child by his mother, or that he committed a rape, no more than hints due to the restrictions of the time. Other themes are much more overt, such as the race theme that plays throughout, resulting in an impassioned speech from Poitier who largely gets to play reactive foil to Darin. The most unusual use of race comes with the ending, which sees Falk crack a joke about burnt cork and blackface, an odd sight today. Said ending is a little underwhelming, which keeps the film just outside of the top five, but this is a rewarding work.
     Darin was, of course, more famous as a singer, scoring hits with songs such as "Splish Splash" and "Beyond The Sea". While his biggest and most famous singles were behind him, he scored a top three hit in the UK and US with "Things" in the year that Pressure Point was released. Sadly, Pressure Point did not get to share such successes and, despite Poitier's claims that it was a mainstream movie, it failed to take with audiences and flopped at the box office, being one of his most obscure and overlooked works to this day.