The 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, tells the story of two very different men.
Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is the police chief of the small town of Sparta, Mississippi. In many ways, Gillespie appears to the epitome of the bigoted Southern cop. He’s overweight. He loses his temper easily. He chews a lot of gum. He knows everyone in town and automatically distrusts anyone who he hasn’t seen before, especially if that person happens to be a black man or from the north.
Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a black man from the north. He’s a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department and he’s as cool and controlled as Gillespie is temperamental and uncouth. Tibbs has no patience for the casual racism that is epitomized by lawmen like Chief Gillespie. When Gillespie says that Virgil is a “fancy name” for a black and asks what people call Virgil in Philadelphia, Virgil declares, “They call me Mister Tibbs!,” with an authority that leaves no doubt that he expects Gillespie to do the same.
Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!
For once, that old joke is correct. When a Chicago industrialist named Phillip Colbert is discover murdered in Sparta, Chief Gillespie heads up the investigation and, assuming that the murderer must be an outsider, orders Deputy Wood (Warren Oates) to check out the train station for any suspicious characters. When Wood arrives at the station, he discovers Virgil standing on the platform. Virgil is simply waiting for his train so that he can get back home to Philadelphia. However, Wood promptly arrests him. Gilespie accuses him of murdering Colbert, just to discover that Virgil’s a police detective from Philadelphia.
Though neither wants to work with the other, that’s exactly what Gillespie and Virgil are forced to do as they investigate Colbert’s murder. Colbert was planning on building a factory in Sparta and his wife (Lee Grant) makes it clear that, if Sparta wants the factory and the money that comes with it, Virgil must be kept on the case. Over the course of the investigation, Gillespie and Virgil come to a weary understanding as both of them are forced to confront their own preconceived notions about both the murder and life in Sparta. In the end, if it’s impossible for them to truly become friends, they do develop a weary respect for each other. That is perhaps the best that one could have hoped for in 1967.
I have to admit that it took me a few viewings before I really appreciated In the Heat of the Night. Though this film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, it’s always suffered when compared to some of the films that it beat. One can certainly see that the film was superior to Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But was it a better film than The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde? Did Rod Steiger really deserve to win Best Actor over Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty? (Amazingly, Poitier wasn’t even nominated.)
To be honest, I still feel that In The Heat of the Night was probably the 3rd best of the 5 films nominated that year, superior to the condescending Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner but nowhere near as groundbreaking as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate. The first time I watched In the Heat of the Night, I thought Steiger blustered a bit too much and the film’s central mystery didn’t really hold together and, to a large extent, I still feel like that.
But, at the same time, there’s a lot to appreciate about In the Heat of the Night. On subsequent viewings, I came to better appreciate the way that director Norman Jewison, editor Hal Ashby, and cinematographer Haskwell Wexler created and maintained an atmosphere that was so thick that you can literally feel the Mississippi humidity while watching the film. I came to appreciate the supporting cast, especially Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Scott Wilson, Anthony James, and Larry Gates. (Gates especially makes an impression in his one scene, playing an outwardly genteel racist who nearly cries when Tibbs reacts to his slap by slapping him back.) I also came to appreciate the fact that, while the white cop/black cop partnership has subsequently become a bit of a cliche, it was new and even controversial concept in 1967.
And finally, I came to better appreciate Sidney Poitier’s performance as Virgil. Poitier underplays Virgil, giving a performance of tightly controlled rage. While Steiger yells his way through the film, Poitier emphasizes that Virgil is always thinking. As in the same year’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Poitier plays a dignified character but, here, that dignity is Virgil’s way of defying the demands and expectations of men like Gillespie. When Virgil does strike back, it’s a cathartic moment because we understand how many times he’s had to hold back.
In the Heat of the Night may not have been the best film of 1967 but it’s still one worth watching.