Director: Norman Jewison
Writers: Stirling Silliphant (screenplay), John Ball (based on a novel by)
Stars: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates
Everybody has that particular film, or maybe even several films, that they go back to time and again. The type you were maybe introduced to by a parent or grandparent, that you can endlessly quote lines from. In the Heat of the Night is definitely one of those films for me. I’ll regularly throw in “one hundred and sixty two dollar and thirty nine cents, well boy!” to a random conversation between my mother or uncle and it ignites a reenactment of that early, memorable scene.
The performances of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are one of the major reasons that I love this film as much as I do. They’re both outstanding for very different reasons. Hell, they’re playing polar opposite characters, so they should be. And yet, despite they’re difference in personality, upbringing and race, in the midst of the rather racist southern setting, their chemistry together is incredible.
It’s a crime drama that revolves around the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, where a prominent industrialist has been murdered. That’s the premise for the films classic opening, with the overtures of Ray Charles setting the tone. Said industrialist is a white man, “just about the most important white man” they’ve got around those parts and of course they need a black scapegoat to pin it on. Officer Wood (Warren Oates), spots Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) sitting in the train station, in the early hours of the morning and deduces that he’s clearly guilty. Because, well, he’s black, isn’t it?
That sets up the aforementioned scene, with Virgil’s wage being revealed, but more importantly it introduces Mr. Tibbs to Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger). The condescension is ripping out of him during their initial meeting, with raised voices, mockery and accusations being thrown around. It’s an explosive, entertaining and impeccably acted scene and you get a measure for the two primary protagonists.
Virgil is an intelligent, sharply dressed man that allows his captors just enough rope to hang themselves with before throwing a dagger into their hearts and revealing his profession as a top homicide detective from Philadelphia. Gillespie is a more impulsive man, quick to anger and frustration. He never strikes me as proper racist, but he’s on a moral precipice, unwilling to question his corrupt, racist bosses, for fear of losing his job. Tibbs’ eventual decision to stay and help solve the murder most definitely acts as the catalyst for the Chief regaining his moral compass and a tinge of humanity.
Mr. Tibbs is an unimpeachable figure and representative of the new brand of policing, with a greater emphasis on science and clever deduction. He’s a walking moral compass and whilst he quietly brings Gillespie round to his side and de-bigofies him, he also has two innocents released from wrongful imprisonment. The first, a convict who goes on the run and the second, Officer Wood, who’s a bit of a sleekit, peeping tom that’s taken to spying on an underage girl, Dolores (Quentin Dean). He lies about his route on the night of the murder, embarrassed he’ll have his dirty secret revealed and subsequently gets temporarily locked up for his troubles.
Whilst I love the dialogue in the main, (not so much the offensive racial slurs mind), the interactions between Tibbs and Gillespie and the way the former determinedly seeks out justice like a mad man, with little to no care for his own wellbeing. I can’t deny there is flaws within the film. The editing isn’t perfect by any means, it’s a bit clunky in parts and there’s whole sequences go nowhere. Like the previously mentioned convict going on an extended escape attempt, for example; the unnecessary meetings between Virgil and Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant) and even his trip to and slapping session with Endicott (Larry Gates).
I can see why they’re in there, it adds some meat to the characters, in the Endicott scene, some shock and further proof that Virgil is an equal in a deeply racist town, but not so much to the story or flow of the film.
The ending comes on rather abruptly, but in fairness, it mostly makes sense. The longer Tibbs stays, seeking answers, equally through a desire to prove his superiority and for justice, the more ire he draws from the white locals, in powerful positions. They’re fearful about skeletons being discovered in their metaphorical closets, most notably the factory being built, the financial benefits it’ll bring them and the implications it may have. This makes him a marked man and he’s even cornered at one stage by Purdy, the brother of Dolores, for having the audacity to be present during her interrogation.
His powers of deduction and detective work are flawless too. He smartly recognises the significance of Dolores, her seeking of an abortion, the secrecy surrounding the payment and that leads him to the greasy, peripheral player that is Ralph (Anthony James). The cafe scene with ‘Fowl Owl on the Prowl’ and the tense stand-off that follows is another personal highlight. It’s not a great surprise when he’s revealed as the killer because he looks like such an oddity of man, but I can imagine it would’ve surprised a few back in the day, because there was no hint of him being involved.
This is one of my all-time favourite films. It’s got a bizarre blend of drama and comedy. The dialogue snaps out as if it were natural, the acting is magnificent all round, but Poitier and Steiger are the clear standouts. The latter won an Academy Award for his performance and it’s not difficult to see why. He’s a lonely figure that transforms as the film progresses. He evokes hilarity in parts and pity in other. Sidney is one of the greatest actors in history. He’s immense. The score is timeless too and an absolute classic from Quincy Jones. The visuals work for the most part without being perfect, but overall it’s just a timeless classic that I’ve seen dozens of times.
It explores the racial divides from the 60s perfectly, shows the ridiculousness of it all with Virgil being a well educated and superior man to the majority, if not all of the white people and it perfectly conveys the clash of old ways within police work with the modern standards we see today.
I can’t really recommend it enough.