In the Heat of the Night - 1967
Director(s): Norman Jewison
Writer(s): Stirling Silliphant (screenplay) / John Ball (novel)
Cinematography by: Haskell Wexler
Editor(s): Hal Ashby
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, James Patterson, Scott Wilson and William Schallert
I had never seen a Sidney Poitier film, despite his vast legacy in Hollywood as a talented actor and director, as well as being the first black actor to win an Oscar in 1964's Lilies of the Field. His newfound fame thanks to his win, allowed him to film three films in a row all tackling race in America and all being box office and critical successes. How about we tackle one of them, 1967's In the Heat of the Night. Let's talk about it.
The story takes place in 1966's Sparta, Mississippi. When a cop on his routine patrol finds a wealthy businessman dead in the streets, the entire police force is dispatched to find the killer. Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is located at the train station waiting for his connection to Philadelphia. With him being a stranger and a black man in the deep south, the cop automatically assumes he is the murderer and brings him to the chief of police, Gillespie (Steiger). It turns out that Virgil is the leading homicide investigator back in Philadelphia, and teams up with Gillespie, despite his racist contempt towards Virgil, to solve the murder mystery.
Stirling Silliphant's screenplay is an adaptation of John Ball's novel of the same name, and what I loved about this story is how it managed to be both a look into the deeply rooted racism culture in America, mainly the deep south and a compelling murder mystery that takes enough twists and turns to keep the audience engaged. The script also showcases powerful moments where a black man is standing his ground despite the constant mockery and racial slurs being thrown his way, even though he is by far the most qualified police officer in the entire town. His talents, composure and unwavering commitment to justice is the reasons why the racist chief of police swallows his prejudice attitude towards him and begrudgingly starts to respect him as a man and a co-worker.
Quick note: not taking anything away from Steiger, since his gum chewing perplexed character is a great performance but, it is funny to see that "white racist person ain't AS racist no more" roles have been catnip to the Oscars for years.
Sidney Poitier's performance as Virgil pushes the story forward and helps the audience deal with the racism around him since he is holding his ground even when surrounded by a group of white men threatening to kill him. His line delivery when Steiger mocked his name, "They Call Me Mister Tibbs!" (the title of the sequel), was so powerful that it drenched the room with tension since the cops had not been talked to that way by a black man. Only to be surpassed by the scene where is slaps a white man in response to being hit. The faces of terror and shock from the officers in the room highlighted the groundbreaking slap that took place. While I made fun of the Oscars at the expense of Steiger's character, his performance is nothing to laugh at, since his entire system of beliefs is being destroyed due to Poitier's character. His character had never met a black man like Poitier or given a chance to a black man to prove him wrong and as his begrudging respect towards Poitier gives nuance to his performance.
Quick note: Quincy Jones' score is fantastic, and it captures the tone of the story perfectly.
In the Heat of the Night is a compelling story of racial tensions in the south, and how despite the progress made in the big cities, it is dangerous for a black man/woman to travel to the outskirts. Even if the racial study was not an exciting selling point, the murder mystery as enough twist and turns for any fan of the genre, making it a fun watch. Poitier and Steiger's chemistry elevate the material making this a clear cut classic.
In the Heat of the Night is Why I Love Movies.
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