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In appreciation: From director Norman Jewison, 10 to watch from ‘In the Heat of the Night’ to ‘The Hurricane’

There is no quintessential Norman Jewison movie. There are only wide-ranging examples of the Canadian-born filmmaker’s versatility: Doris Day comedies, Oscar-winning dramatic powerhouses, a half-dozen stage-to-screen adaptations — and my favorite of all his movies, “Moonstruck” from 1987.

That one exemplifies the sturdy authority of the director behind the camera. Jewison died Jan. 20 at the age of 97. “Moonstruck” is a mellow, screwy romance and a film of simple scenes, written by John Patrick Shanley, and performed by tremendous and supernaturally well-chosen actors.

It was hardly Jewison’s only casting triumph. When Sidney Poitier died two years ago, I re-watched (and re-watched and re-watched) the pivotal clash in Jewison’s 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night.” It’s the two-minute sequence of events in which Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, staring down a racist Mississippi murder suspect in his beloved greenhouse, takes a hard slap in the face — and then, instantly, slaps the man back (this was Poitier’s contribution, unscripted but rehearsed) with the local sheriff as astonished witness.

Perfect scenes like that one, or the beautiful restaurant encounter between Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney in “Moonstruck,” do not direct themselves. Jewison, along with his editors, knew the value of instinctual, subtle cutting and framing. (The gradual reveal in “Moonstruck” of the conversation at the next table: brilliant.)

Were all his movies shot and handled this way? Hardly. Jewison experimented with modish split-screen techniques with cinematographer Haskell Wexler in “The Thomas Crown Affair” and made his share of, if not of traditional action movies, then movies with a lot of busy, on-location action. Sometimes his visual experiments and storytelling acumen worked just so; sometimes they didn’t. But his career streaks of the 1960s and ‘80s were exceptional.

Here are 10 examples of Jewison’s range, curiosity and facility across four decades and change. All are available for streaming.

“Send Me No Flowers” (1964): After a decade in early television, Jewison made his Hollywood studio feature debut with a 1962 Tony Curtis/Suzanne Pleshette vehicle, “40 Pounds of Trouble.” This led to three more romantic comedies, the best of which is “Send Me No Flowers,” showcasing Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Randall in a farce — it was Hudson and Day’s third and final pairing — perched at the edge of a post-JFK suburban nightmare.

“The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966): A big, gently satirical Cold War hit (Jewison was an unapologetic lefty), this comedy about a Russian sub’s not-quite-invasion of a New England island community gave Alan Arkin a career launch for the ages.

“In the Heat of the Night” (1967): Trouble in Mississippi, and in America: Jewison’s sly, powerfully vital drama caught the heat of the nation’s flames while delivering a juicy, compelling murder investigation. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger go to town.

“The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968): Jewison’s third commercial success in a row plays like a fashion spread, a heist movie and a cooing embrace of star quality all in one. Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway and the Boston location work look mighty good, still.

“Gaily, Gaily” (1969): A game misstep, but of true Chicago interest: Jewison’s loose adaptation of the Ben Hecht memoir (shot in Chicago, Milwaukee and Galena) finds the director adopting hand-held camerawork and a frantic sort of exuberance, with Beau Bridges as the Ben Harvey character. This movie is the hardest to find of the 10; there’s a copy of it on YouTube, at least for now. During filming, a young critic named Roger Ebert quoted Jewison: “This is the most American city there is. It doesn’t give a damn what you think about it.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971): The highest-grossing film of its year, Jewison’s expansive version of the 1964 musical smash made the wise casting choice of Topol as Tevye — even though Zero Mostel created the role, before degrading it (arguably) with shtick as the Broadway run wore on.

“A Soldier’s Story” (1984): Jewison returned to stage properties frequently throughout his career; one of the best is this head-on, full-force adaptation of the Charles Fuller Pulitzer Prize-winner, starring Adolph Caesar, Howard Rollins and Denzel Washington.

“Moonstruck” (1987). Many, many wonderful grace notes, and the way Jewison stages the all’s-well breakfast table finale (complete with reconciliations and a wedding announcement) reveals directorial ease and confidence in every detail. Nothing pushed, every laugh in character, tenderness and real pleasure right to the finish.

“In Country” (1989): Modest but very affecting: Bruce Willis as a Vietnam veteran dealing with PTSD in small-town Kentucky, and Emily Lloyd as his niece, struggling for connection.

“The Hurricane” (1999). Jewison’s second-to-last feature film — an angry, absorbing biopic about middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington), framed for murder. Jewison nearly directed Washington in a Malcolm X movie, before Spike Lee took over that project; “The Hurricane” reteamed the director and the star with a shared sense of craft, commitment and true class.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune