In The Heat of The Night/The Diner Scene
It begins with Sidney Poitier, the Philadelphia detective and Warren Oates, the town’s deputy, in the police car and getting ready to recreate the deputy’s routine nightly activity. Part of his route is ultimately a stop at a local diner.
The two take off and then the scene shifts. We next see a hand holding what appears to be a dinner knife trying to pry a lock. The camera pans up following the knife. We hear a click. Another hand reaches inside a box with square letters and turns on the light inside. Then we see the pockmarked face attached to the hands. The face belongs to Ralph, the diner counterman. I remember the huge Adam’s apple.
The box turns out to be a juke box. A happy almost child-like melody begins playing. It sounded more like a children’s lullaby. At first, I thought it was “Little Red Riding Hood” by Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs.
The face of a man is only a few inches away from the juke box. He is intently listening. His head begins to bob up and down in time with the music, as does the hand not holding the knife. He steps away and starts the goofy dancing. And he never let go of the knife.
We finally get a good look at the guy. He’s wearing a dirty apron; so he is not a customer. He is a tall, lean, man with sinewy build and greasy dark hair. The character creeped me out.
The creepy guy hears a commotion in the parking lot and goes over to the window to check it out. By now it is evident no one else is in the building. He sees a police car drive up.
The worker evidently realizes who’s in the car and walks across the small room to the counter. He sits on the counter, throws his long lanky legs over it, takes a pie off the shelf and puts it under the counter.
Once that’s accomplished he starts tapping on the counter with that same knife, but in a different hand, swivels his hips back and forth, places a dim-witted smirk on his face and waits for the two men to enter. All the while we hear “Fowl Owl on the Prowl” playing in the background.
The men in the police car are getting ready to get out of their car. But before doing so, the deputy tells the detective that he plans to drink a soda and eat a wedge of pie.
Just then Rod Steiger, the chief of police, drives up and angrily gets out of his police car and approaches the other two. The chief questions the detective as to his purpose. Heated words are exchanged and then finally all three enter the diner.
It’s funny. I know significant things happened in that diner, but what I remember most is that weirdo character and because of him how that place could actually have any business. I certainly would not take any of my dates to a place like that.
No kidding! I really thought that.
This diner scene was originally shot using Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs’ song, “Little Red Riding Hood.” The artist wanted more money than the producers wanted to pay, so they turned to Quincy Jones to write a new one.
He wrote the music to “Foul Owl on the Prowl,” with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman with a beat and theme to match the existing footage and intent. The song was sung by Boomer and Travis. Like the planned original, Quincy Jones’ song was an ode to a big bad predator. The lyrics, using various birds and rhymes, concern a man, described as an owl, who is on the prowl for his next victim in the dark of night.
Quincy Jones asked the members of a musical group called “The Lewis and Clarke Expedition” to do the song. They did, but under the name of Boomer and Travis. Travis went on to gain fame as a country singer using his real name Michael Martin Murphy.
The words of his song go:
“All you little birds better lock up tight ’cause there’s a foul owl on the prowl tonight.
Hey, little lark, get outta the dark, Fowl owl on the prowl.
Cute little jay, stay outta his way, Fowl owl on the prowl.
You might be the quail he’ll tail, Fowl owl on the prowl…”
It just seemed like a funny song to play in such a serious movie. I was not expecting funny. At this point in the movie, one of the town’s wealthy businessmen had been murdered and a couple of people already accused of committing it. One of the accused is the town deputy, which is why the big city detective and the deputy are in the car at the diner.
The song “Fowl Owl on the Prowl” appeared innocent. That unexpected innocence in the middle of a tense movie and the visual of a dancing small-town weirdo strongly suggested ominous things were going to follow. Even I could see that.
Ominous things did follow. The lanky weirdo guy showed up again a few more times in the movie. The actor’s name is Anthony James. This movie was his motion picture debut. He continued acting until 1992 when he appeared as Skinny Dubois in Clint Eastwood’s western movie, “Unforgiven.”
The dancing guy reminded me of someone I thought was a resident of my fair city. We all knew some of the movie’s extras were residents. I could not understand, though, why one of them was given a speaking part.
Strange as it may be, that is the scene that impacted me the most. Perhaps that happened because Mr. James did such a good job of reminding me of someone I knew or thought I knew.
Here is the song