Sunday, August 12, 2012

In the Heat of the Night (1968) -- Norman Jewison

It is the late Sixties, with Blacks still severely oppressed in the deep South. On a typically hot, sticky night someone murders a wealthy white man who's planned to build an important factory in the town. The crime brings out the worst in the racially backward town of Sparta, Mississippi, as its chief of Police, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), must reluctantly accept the help of a traveling black police officer from Philadelphia, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), to find the killer.

Rod Steiger as the stubborn chief of police. 
Winner of the 1968 Oscar for Best Film, In the Heat of the Night still feels current. If race relations in the United States have taken a giant leap forward since the turbulent 60's, there's still plenty of hatred and prejudice going around to make one believe you could read this story in today's newspapers. And thanks to Jewison's terrific direction and its fine cast, the film seems just as exciting and balanced as it must have when released. Balanced because it depicts racism from both sides of the black and white divide: the ignorant redneck crackers who populate Sparta and hope to wrap a chain or tire iron about the uppity black Yankee; and Tibbs himself, who's convinced that the town's most important white landowner, Mr. Endicott, is behind the murder. The film's most famous moment occurs between these two.

[upon the suggestion that he may have murdered Colbert, Endicott slaps Tibbs across the face. Tibbs promptly slaps him back. Endicott is positively shocked.]
Endicott: Gillespie?
Gillespie: Yeah.
Endicott: You saw it.
Gillespie: I saw it.
Endicott: Well, what are you gonna do about it?
Gillespie: I don't know.
Endicott: I'll remember that.
[to Tibbs]
Endicott: There was a time when I could've had you shot.

Stieger is terrific as the conflicted Southern officer. He has his pride, and like many white Southerners, is distrustful of anyone from the North, let alone a black man. But he's miles ahead of the hooligans in town when it comes to judging a man by his character rather than his skin. His motives are not entirely grounded on a more advanced social consciousness; however, he's quick to realize that Tibbs is a lot smarter than he. His job is on the line because the victim's wife is threatening to pull the investment into the factory out unless her husband's killer is caught. Gillespie needs Tibbs. You can see him reassessing the strange out-of-towner Tibbs as the investigation unfolds and wondering about long-held beliefs as he works his grey matter as hard as his omnipresent wad of gum.

Stieger won that year's Oscar for Best Actor against some tough competition: Warren Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde, Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate, Paul Newman for Cool Hand Luke, and Spencer Tracy for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.  I think the Academy made the right choice.

Tibbs examines the hands of an early suspect. 
The script gives his character a nice telling scene with Tibbs, late one night in his house, where he admits that no one has been there before. He is a lonely man, whose job doesn't even offer much satisfaction. When Tibbs makes a comment that he takes for pity, Gillespie ends the conversation. Poitier had a busy year in 1967. Besides this film, he made Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love. Each was a big hit.    

Warren Oates is officer Sam Wood, who comes under suspicion, and Lee Grant is the grieving widow. Both do their usual solid work. The part of Woods plays a bigger role in the novel by John Ball, as the story is told from his perspective. Composer Quincy Jones and the great Ray Charles collaborated on the bluesy theme, which opens the film with a wonderful shot of a train pulling into the station in the middle of the night. Though shot mostly in Illinois, the whole film captures the feel and look of the deep South. (Filming did include a quick trip to some cotton fields in Tennessee to add authenticity).

The actual mystery is not complicated but well hidden until the end. And there are enough red herrings to keep up the viewers' interest. Like chief Gillespie, we wonder where Tibbs is taking his investigation. But the film isn't really about the murder anyway. Rather, it is a sharp, well-produced statement on the state of racial relations, and why it's important for all of us to examine our own belief system from time to time.

I don't suppose the people of Mississippi remember the film too fondly. They aren't presented in a favorable light. Hopefully, they've shown considerable progress in the last 45 years in their attitudes toward blacks.

A deadly confrontation.


  1. I think Sidney Poitier was a totally brilliant actor. He is easily in my top 15.

    This is a film of his I've not seen yet, mostly because I don't watch very many 60's (and later) films. I do remember this being a TV show in the 80's, with none other than Carroll O'Connor (of Archie Bunker fame) in the Rod Steiger role.

    Thanks for the great review.

  2. Hi, Patti. Thanks for your comment. If you like Poitier, you'll definitely enjoy this one. He's very good here and the atmosphere of the film is appropriate to the period. Of his 1967 films, this one is my favorite.

  3. Great review of a riveting film. For what it's worth, I also think the Academy made the right decision that year... Steiger is utterly compelling.

  4. Thanks, silver. Good to hear from you. I'm not generally a fan of Steiger but he sure is terrific here. My favorite line is this: "I got the motive which is money and the body which is dead!" Poor guy; Gillespie was really in over his head but he saves Tibbs' rear a few times.