In the Heat of the Night

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In the Heat of the Night is a movie I totally misremembered. I remember watching it a couple of years ago for BP month, being super bored with it, and then not reviewing it for fear I had missed the point. Somewhere in between those two years, I had mixed it up with some other movie and remembered it having an entirely different ending than it did (I’m still not sure which movie’s ending I had transplanted into my memory of this one). It was good to finally devote my whole attention to the movie and finally set the record straight in my own mind.

1967 was a landmark year in American cinema. The production code was dealt its final blows, the country’s youth and counter-culture started to leak into movies, and the old Hollywood studios were dying off. This was evident at the Oscars that year, where the nominees were this film (which won), Dr. Doolittle, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. I’m on record that Bonnie and Clyde is one of my favorite films, for the way it portrays youthful rebellion, its sexual politics, and its Americanization of the French New Wave. The Graduate is also one of my favorite films, another revolutionary film for many of the same reasons. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and (from what I understand, you’d be hard-pressed to actually make me watch it) Dr. Doolittle were bastions of the Old Hollywood, but Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? did at least try to engage with race relations in America, and it featured the last performance of Spencer Tracy, appearing alongside Katharine Hepburn. Like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night features both Sidney Poitier and Beah Richards, and tries to engage with race relations in America at the time. It may not quite reach the stylistic heights of The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde, but the cinematography by the great Haskell Wexler does a lot to elevate it to that level.

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Virgil Tibbs is passing through the town of Sparta, Mississippi when he is picked up by Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) on suspicion of murder. Once Wood brings him into the local police station, Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) discovers that not only does Tibbs know nothing about the murder, he’s also a detective from Philadelphia. Tibbs is pressured by Gillespie to stay in town and help him solve the murder. The victim is Colbert, a factory owner who was planning on employing black people at his new factory, yet to be built. Gillespie is under enormous pressure to catch the killer from Colbert’s widow (Lee Grant), but under pressure from the town not to implicate Endicott (Larry Gates), who owns a cotton plantation and most of the town as well. Gillespie tries to pin the murders on several characters, including Wood himself, until Tibbs’ insistence on the truth wins out. Gillespie personally wants Tibbs gone, an educated black man in a Southern town is stirring up a lot of trouble by his mere presence, but Mrs. Colbert demands that he stay on the case in order to catch the her husband’s real killer. Eventually Tibbs unmasks the real killer, and the murder turns out to have little to do with race at all.

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(Mild spoilers in this paragraph) The movie was based on a novel, so I can only assume the filmmakers are following the outline set up in the book, but the decision to make the murder a simple robbery on the part of a desperate townsperson and not Endicott’s doing was a very strange one to me. I suppose the idea is to focus on Gillespie and Tibbs’ relationship and not the politics of the town, but the politics of the town were very interesting to me. Some of the most interesting scenes were that of Gillespie and the mayor (William Schallert) talking about how to proceed with the “investigation.” Gillespie time and time again proves very willing to frame just about anyone for the crime, but I wasn’t sure if this was because he was not smart enough to realize one piece of circumstantial evidence against them does not make someone a murderer, or because he actually was just that comfortable with framing someone to make his life easier. At the end of the day, it’s very strange to have a movie about race in almost every frame that comes up on screen, to then see that the central mystery doesn’t have much to do with race at all. The town’s stuck with Endicott for a while longer, basically.

The relationship between Gillespie and Tibbs is the main thrust of the movie, and is what most reviewers seem to focus on in reviewing the film (at least the ones I can find). While it is clear they both gain a bit of respect and understanding of each other over the course of the film, I feel as if I was more doubtful of this. They exist on a base level of contempt for each other, and we only get flashes of their common understanding. Perhaps they do respect each other but just have a difficult time showing it, even at the end. The scene where Tibbs has dinner with Gillespie in his house shows this pretty well. Gillespie confesses that he leads a lonely, isolated life in a town that doesn’t really want him there, and when Tibbs tries to empathize with him, he can bear to be pitied by a black man. There really aren’t a lot of rosy conclusions to be drawn from their relationship at all.

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However, one has to be respect the performances. Obviously, this movie’s 50 years old by now, and it straddles a weird line in terms of acting style. There are a ton of great moments of Tibbs and Gillespie just staring at each other; the power of the acting in this movie lies more in the silent moments than when the characters’ anger boils over and they actually explode into speech. Once they are talking, it reveals itself as an old movie. When Poitier and Steiger are silent, their bottled-up faces speak volumes about the contempt and hatred lying underneath. Steiger won the best actor Oscar that year while Poitier wasn’t even nominated, in either actor or supporting actor, which doesn’t quite seem fair.

On this rewatch, one thing I most appreciated was how the cinematography is able to capture the environment. The film was shot on location in Illinois, being unsafe at the time to film in the actual South. The camera nevertheless captures the oppressive heat in the town of Sparta, as almost every close-up reveals rivers of sweat on the faces of the characters. Much of the film takes place at night, enveloping the characters in menace. I caught the film on TCM, and I was pleasantly surprised with how vibrant the colors looked. It doesn’t make the town look good necessarily, but it paints the film into its time and place very nicely.

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Maybe I wanted this film to take a broader view and look more at the larger ecosystem of Sparta, but nevertheless I’m pretty happy with this film on my rewatch of it. It’s not a very valid criticism to say I wish the film had focused on something other than what it focused on, but I guess that’s where I land here. Still, I think Poitier and Steiger turn in great performances and while I can’t really speak to how accurate race relations are depicted here, it would be a long time until they were tackled again by a best picture winner.

At the ’67 Oscars, In the Heat of the Night won five out of the seven Oscars it was nominated for. It took home best picture, Steiger took home best actor, it got adapted screenplay, best sound, and best editing. It lost out on best director for Jewison to Mike Nicholls (can’t argue with that) and best sound effects. All in all, the film did pretty well for itself. I’d say its stood the test of time pretty well, though perhaps Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate would be considered more innovative in terms of style and content today. Had I had a say, I probably would not have picked In the Heat of the Night to win, but I don’t much begrudge its winning either.

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“They call me Mister Tibbs!”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review
Variety review
The Guardian review
I also read Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution over the summer, some of that background knowledge went into the writing of this review

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