In The Heat Of The Night

US (1967) Dir. Norman Jewison

North vs. South, a clash that will continue to divide countries until humanity is no more. But is it really necessary? It is bad enough enmity exists between different countries and continents because of geography, for it to be an issue within one’s own borders is just as absurd. The worst case of this is arguably in Korea, though we Brits aren’t so immune to it, and neither is America.

In Sparta, Mississippi police officer Sam Woods (Warren Oates) is on his nightly rounds when he discovers the body of industrialist Phillip Colbert, who had been dead for a few hours. Woods later finds a black man Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) at the train station and arrests him for having a lot of money in his wallet. Woods takes Tibbs in for questioning by his superior Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) as a possible suspect.

However, it turns out Tibbs is a police officer from Philadelphia to the dismay of Gillespie and Woods, yet are forced to seek his help when they realise that Tibbs is a homicide expert. An uneasy alliance is formed during the investigation, but the closer they get to finding the killer the more the racial tension stirred among the locals by having Tibbs present in their town threatens to derail things.

Winning five Oscars, including Best Film and Best Actor for Steiger, In The Heat Of The Night is more than a racially charged drama and although this aspect of it is inescapable, there is a finely balanced commentary on the aforementioned North vs. South divide too. Largely overlooked is how it is also a tight, forensically deliberate crime thriller, following in the great tradition of whodunits by keeping us guessing until the end.

Based on the novel by John Ball, there are a number of tropes subverted that make it stand out which surprisingly haven’t been duplicated as often as they should in its wake, leaving this to stand alone in breaking new ground. I refer to Tibbs not being a haughty genius blowing into town and looking down his nose at inferior hicks before him, but a skilled officer being hindered by prejudiced hicks for being superior to them – and being black.

Tibbs essentially doesn’t act superior towards his unwilling hosts but it is clear that he is far better bred then they are – he speaks eloquently, dresses smartly, is well mannered and crucially, doesn’t jump to conclusions. Yet the first sign of disparity between them comes when Gillespie asks how Tibbs came to have so much money, and is disgusted to learn how much more Philly police are paid than the Sparta police.

Since Tibbs is no longer a suspect, local man Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson) is arrested after being found with Colbert’s wallet. But Tibbs isn’t so sure, concluding after a few questions and a quick physical examination that Harvey is innocent, not that Gillespie will listen. Luckily Tibbs has an ally in Colbert’s widow (Lee Grant), insisting he conducts the investigation or she shuts the factory down, incurring huge financial and employment losses for the town.

Gillespie knows he has to acquiesce to close the case but doesn’t like it, feeling pressure from corrupt businessmen to get Tibbs out of town. Oddly, this is only touched upon as a plot point rather than featuring more prominently as another obstacle for Tibbs, yet just acknowledging its existence actually seems to suffice, leaving more time to devote to the investigation and the uncomfortable pairing of Tibbs and Gillespie.

Director Norman Jewison, known for previously directing Doris Day comedies, lets his two leads create their own tension through their body language and conflicting attitudes. Tibbs is cool but his simmering resentment at the treatment he has received is palpable in much of his dialogue, lines often hissed through clenched teeth but every word carries weight.

Perhaps the most famous line from the film, “They call me Mister Tibbs!”, Tibbs’ reaction in response to being called “boy” emphasises the difference in racial tolerance between North and South without getting overly didactic. It marks a turning point in this fraught partnership but not an immediate thawing of hostilities, which lasts practically to the end of the film, another trope flipped on its head.

One can argue a convincing case for Poitier getting the best actor Oscar over Steiger, as this is another commanding performance from him, but maybe him once again playing a black man facing down racist oppression is the reason Poitier lost out. But Steiger is also intrinsic to the film’s success so it would be remiss to undervalue the power and quality of his performance.

Many scenes show Gillespie’s bigoted side compromised by his sense of duty, suggesting a begrudging respect for Tibbs is forming and a reappraisal of black people. As the high point of Steger’s role, I would also nominate the scene where Tibbs is struck by racist tycoon Endicott (Larry Gates) and strikes him back. A tearful Endicott asks what Gillespie will do about it, saying his predecessor would have Tibbs him shot, but Gillespie knows  he can’t do that.

A lot is packed into the film in terms of message and themes, managing to address them all without crumbling under the weight of not trying to appear like it has something to say. The crime plot is the perfect distraction for anyone not interested in being lectured though it is impossible to ignore the racial tension as it is integral to the story, but by its very nature, it is a subject that writes itself.

It may be over 50 years old but In The Heat Of The Night still has the power to shock, engage and encourage discussion via the smart writing, made all the more compelling through the excellent central performances. But there is also the tragedy that many of its issues are still relevant today when we should be beyond this, but if Gillespie can get over it…

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