In The Heat of the Night (1967)


Poitier does it again.
Poitier does it again.

Genre: Drama Crime Mystery

Starring: Sidney Poitier (The Defiant Ones • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), Rod Steiger (On the WaterfrontDoctor Zhivago)

Directed By: Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the RoofMoonstruck)

Overview: When a man is found dead in the small-town streets of Sparta, Mississippi, a black man is picked up as a suspect. Turns out that black man is a homicide detective up North. When the sheriff asks him to stay and help the investigation, the race relations of the Deep South make things more than a little difficult.

When I think of Sidney Poitier, I still see him as primarily an actor of racially-themed films, mostly because it’s all I’ve seen him do: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones, and now, In The Heat of the Night. No, I haven’t watched many of Sidney’s movies but I’ve seen enough to know that anything he’s in will receive no complaint from me. Add that the 1001 Club reviewed In The Heat of the Night quite favourably, and I had no doubt that this first film I presented to a new friend would go over well.

Harvey [To Tibbs]: What you doin' wearin' white man's clothes?

In the small Deep South town of Sparta, Mississippi, a policeman (the weird-to-see-as-a-corn-fed-redneck-cop Warren Oates) finds the murdered body of a rich industrialist. When he scours the streets for a suspect, he finds a black man (Sidney Poitier) waiting for a train and arrests him on sight. Police chief Gillespie (the seasoned and impressive Rod Steiger) is quickly embarrassed when he finds out that the black man, Virgil Tibbs, is not only a policeman from Philadelphia, but a homicide specialist. After a quick call to Tibbs’ police chief, it’s suggested that Tibbs stick around and help solve the Mississippi murder. Reluctantly, Mr. Tibbs agrees and the investigation begins. But with the town of Sparta rich with a deep culture of racism, the night won’t be the only thing that’s heated.

Gillespie [after the arrest of Mr. Tibbs]: Whatcha hit him with?

Tibbs: Hit whom?

Gillespie: "Whom"? "Whom"? Well, you a northern boy? What's a northern boy like you doing all the way down here? 

As stories go, it’s a pretty standard police whodunit complete with its cadre of suspects and red herrings, but an audience hoping to find a unique mystery in In The Heat of the Night is missing the point. The mystery is nothing more than the vehicle driving the characters to their controversial interactions. 

And Rod Steiger's not so bad himself.
And Rod Steiger's not so bad himself.

The most impressive thing about In The Heat of the Night is how nuanced those interactions between our main characters are. The race-tense scenes between our two policemen speaks to an honest humanity. Gillespie is a cop first and a racist second, and though his sense of justice - his desire to solve a murder – comes first, he can’t always be altruistic. To have someone who’s ‘a homicide specialist’ fall into his lap is pure luck and he’ll use that resource, even if it is a Northern boy Negro. But when emotions ramp up, Gillespie knows how to hurt Tibbs, knows how to be a proper Southern white man, knows how to put a Negro in his place. Using the N-word ain’t no problem when he needs to get his point across. And Tibbs, well he doesn’t turn the other cheek and hold fast to lofty ideals; he reacts accordingly. He reacts like an educated man living in the era of the civil rights movement. He reacts like a man who’s the best hope of solving this crime.

Gillespie [as Tibbs prepares to abandon the town]: I'm tellin' you that you're gonna stay. You'll stay here if I have to have your chief remind you what he told you to do. But I don't think I have to do that, you see? No. Because you're so damned smart. You're smarter than any white man. You're just gonna stay here and show us all. You could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don't think that you could let an  opportunity like that pass by.

Stirling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay based on John Ball’s novel and how it’s delivered by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger is the undeniable strength of In The Heat of the Night.

Talk about a crappy consolation prize

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 7 Script: 9 Plot: 7 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 80% (Hot Enough)

In The Heat of the Night is one of those perfect little bell-curve films from the 1001 book that remind me to ‘get around to this one’. Sometimes it’s not about the study; sometimes it’s just about putting movies like these under your belt and building your solid repertoire of the wonderful things that are out there.

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