In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Written by Stirling Silliphant
Directed by Norman Jewison
In the Heat of the Night was a huge film in terms of its pop-culture resonance for a few decades, yet it is almost forgotten in our current age. I was aware of the seven-season television sequel that premiered in 1988. I recently discovered Sidney Poitier continued to play the character of Virgil Tibbs in two sequels. There are also seven novels in the Tibbs series. Now I’m sure not all of this media is as great as this movie, but it’s so strange for a character to have been that prominent only to have entirely vanished from the cultural discourse. As presented in this film, the character is so compelling that I have to believe the following productions just didn’t live up to the bar set by In the Heat of the Night.
Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is a homicide detective from Philadelphia passing through Sparta, Mississippi, after visiting his mother. He is suspected of the murder of a Chicago industrialist who moved down to the South to build a factory. Tibbs is just a stranger & a Black man in a horribly backward town and manages to put the arrogant police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) in his place. However, a call to Tibbs’ supervisor leads to the detective being put on loan to the Sparta police to help with the murder investigation. First, the police suspect a local neer-do-well Oberst, but Tibbs doesn’t buy it. He believes Endicott, a cotton plantation owner, had the most to lose from the northerner’s factory plan. Throughout the investigation, Tibbs & Gillespie clash on how to go about solving the case and which suspect to pursue and not to go after. Ultimately, they reach mutual professional respect, and Tibbs uncovers the identity of the killer.
From the production side of this film, it is a powerhouse of talent. Cinematography is being handled by Haskell Wexler, who can find interesting, naturalistic ways to shoot and then suddenly throw in a stylistic splash that meshes perfectly. Hal Ashby is back in the editor’s chair, continuing his streak of fantastic collaborations with Jewison. Quincy Jones provides the original score creating the archetype of crime/detective film & television music for the next decade. Urban sounds are intermixing with Deep South blues, and it fits the picture perfectly.
Then you add the two lead performances by Poitier and Steiger. These actors are performing at the top of their game. Poitier especially gets many moments to react, which is where I believe you see an actor’s full talent. Because he is a Black man, he doesn’t get a chance to speak up when he’s first introduced. A cop is holding a gun on him, so he complies, knowing there will be a moment where it’s discovered who he is. Tibbs certainly gets his moments of towering over the crackers who harassed him. Yet, the script smartly doesn’t make him invincible. Characters who are perfect are rarely interesting, and Tibbs does let his hubris carry him away for a bit. He’s so convinced that Endicott is the culprit because the man is such a rotten racist. But ultimately, it is Tibbs’s return to his intellect that allows him to follow the trail and find the killer.
Steiger is another of those actors who seems to have been forgotten to time. He came out of the Actor’s Studio in NYC alongside Marlon Brando and under Elia Kazan’s tutelage. Steiger found many good character parts in films, most memorably as Brando’s brother in On the Waterfront. Steiger grew distant from Kazan after learning the director named names to HUAC, and it sounds like he was a very solitary person all-around. Through the late 50s & early 60s, he struggled to find work and ended up in many not fantastic movies. His turns in The Pawnbroker and Doctor Zhivago revitalized his career. His role as Gillespie here would serve as a high watermark in his acting career.
Overall, In the Heat of the Night is a near-perfect movie. It manages to deal with the racism of the Deep South without ever becoming preachy. It keeps the story centered on characters rather than ideas. There is not a drive to make these people best friends or have Gillespie renounce his racist leanings. He is ultimately forced to acknowledge the superior intellect and skills of Tibbs. The implication being that with this softening, he will continue to rethink his previous ideologies. The town’s mayor remarks his disgust that Gillespie didn’t simply shoot Tibbs and claim self-defense after an altercation with Endicott. Gillespie eventually becomes more defensive of Tibbs and allows the detective to do what he needs to solve the case. Their dynamic should be used as an archetype in more films. They only know each other for a few days, but it becomes essential for them to understand each other, or they can’t help the widow find closure for her husband’s murder.