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There have been a few famous Best Picture Oscar winners that have gotten sequels. Films like The Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, and Rocky come to mind. Often forgotten, though, are the two follow ups to 1967’s Best Picture, In The Heat of the Night. In both cases, Sidney Poitier returned to play the role of detective Virgil Tibbs, first in 1970’s They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, and in our film today 1971’s The Organization.
The film opens with a break-in at a furniture company in which a group of crooks kidnap a company executive and force him to open up the company safe. The crooks escape and set off a big explosion as they depart. When the cops show up, they find the executive dead thanks to two gunshots, but nothing seems to have been stolen from the safe. In actuality, four millions dollars worth of heroin has been swiped, since the furniture company is a front for an organization of drug dealers.
A short time later, Tibbs is contacted by the group that committed the robbery (one of whom is played by a young Raul Julia). They are all people who have lost loved ones due to the drugs polluting the city. They were trying to get the heroin off the streets and lead the cops to the organization, but they didn’t kill anybody. So now, Tibbs agrees to work with the group to get to the bottom of things, but can’t tell his fellow cops what is going on. Things start to turn hairy, though, as several members of the group of vigilantes are killed or seriously injured. Soon it all comes down to an elaborate scheme to bring the organization out in the open.
The Organization should be a pretty riveting crime flick, but it just isn’t. The premise of a straight-arrow cop having to work with a group of vigilantes trying to clean up their streets is an intriguing one. Sadly, the film just doesn’t do an effective job of raising the stakes or building a substantial amount of tension. The film still has a few moments of excitement, but for the most part it doesn’t really make much of an attempt to grab the audience and pull them into this story.
One of the more frustrating things about the film is the strange approach to Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of Virgil Tibbs. Some of my favorite moments of the film depict Tibbs as a dedicated husband and father. There are a handful of interesting scenes where he attempts to talk with his preteen son about sex. There’s a very charming awkwardness to what Poitier portrays in these moments. There’s also an interesting sequence between Tibbs and his wife (Barbara McNair) that very simply communicates the fear and worry experienced by the spouses of police. These scenes with Tibbs’ family are among the film’s best moments. However, whenever he’s in cop mode he feels like a completely different character. He’s as stiff as a yardstick, scowling at everyone and blurting out strings of words that barely constitute sentences. Maybe this is on purpose, an attempt to communicate that he’s one man on the job and another when he’s with his family. Unfortunately, as a viewer I found this approach alienating. Sure, characters change over time, but this Tibbs doesn’t quite feel like the one I saw in the Oscar-winning film that introduced him.
I dare say that the presence of the Tibbs characters may be the biggest thing that bogs down this film. Far more interesting are the members of the ragtag group of vigilantes who set this story in motion. They consist of people of different races and backgrounds coming together to stop something they see destroying their community…even if that means resorting to crime. Raul Julia turns in an especially charismatic performance as the de facto leader of the group. This film may have actually been quite a bit stronger had it primarily focused on this group of characters.
Though the film is overall a disappointment, there is the occasional bright spot. There are a few decent moments of action, and the final chase through San Francisco’s Montgomery Street Station (still under construction at the time) does give the film a little bit of a boost as it reaches its conclusion. The opening of the film, depicting the robbery, is also quite intriguing, lasting over ten minutes and containing almost no dialogue. Unfortunately, though, the majority of The Organization just doesn’t do a whole lot to truly engage the viewer. A rare misfire for Poitier as an actor.