In the Heat of the Night - 1967
In the Heat of the Night - Released Aug 2, 1967. Directed by Norman Jewison
Jewison's film is a detective story set in a fictionalized Mississippi town ("Sparta"), circa 1967, that is centralized around two men (one white, one black) forced to work together to solve the murder of a Chicago businessman who was in the midst of building a factory to benefit the town with much-needed local employment.
His wife (played by Lee Grant), now a widow, angrily refuses to let the local police (led by Rod Steiger as Police Chief Gillespie) continue to manage the investigation of the murder after they mistakenly arrest visiting Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) on flimsy evidence and then promptly mistakenly arrest a second man, which an annoyed Tibbs easily demonstrates could not have done the murder, either.
Political pressure mounting on the police department, and with Tibbs' own chief in Philadelphia ordering, by telephone, the angry detective to lend assistance "to a fellow officer", both Tibbs and Gillespie step-by-step develop a grudging admiration for each other's abilities, courage and personal circumstances as they journey through the racial tensions, class tensions, and general underbelly of Sparta's society.
Jewison's film features the stereotypical movie racism of Southern "rednecks" (and the stereotypical sight of a lot of people sweating heavily, like A Tennessee Williams' movie adaptation) but also brings to the story subtle story elements, for example the chip on Tibbs' shoulder, one he didn't even know he had, but reaches full flower when he realizes he has a chance to indict the local racist cotton-farming magnate Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), and Tibbs (like GIllipsie earlier in the story) lets prejudice distort his ability to fairly evaluate the clues and evidence. Failure and determination bind the two men together (as does their mutual experience of the policeman's life) as they hazard the obstacles in their path to find the actual killer. In Tibbs case, it means regularly running into racist white men, especially a posse of lowlifes, apparently sent forth on Endicott's orders to find Tibbs and teach him a lesson (in a famous scene in the film, Endicott slaps Tibbs when he realized Tibbs has focused on him as a murder suspect. Tibbs, to everyone's surprise, slaps Endicott right back. Endicott then bemoans the changing times, lamenting that in the past he could have had Tibbs shot for slapping a white man. "Did you see that?" Endicott yells at the shocked Gillespie who is standing nearby. "I see it but I don't know if I believe it," Gillespie offers.) (In this tale, Gillespie sees a lot he doesn't expect and has to develop new thinking to handle it all, in particular a black policeman who is simply his superior as a detective.)
As Endicott's crew of adders search near the town at night in cars marked by small vanity-plate confederate flag license plates, the image is at first seems like a slightly silly cartoon image of racists at large, but the image becomes increasingly threatening, until the cars seem to move like dragons along the unpaved back-roads in their search for Tibbs. The poverty-stricken bottom of Sparta is displayed in these scenes, a place that eventually Tibbs goes to look for information, being places "where whitey can't go" as he tells Gillespie.
Jewison gets to present the movie in at least three-ways, then, as a picture of racism in action and its decreasing powers (symbolized by the official impotence of Endicott); the chasm between wealth and poverty, and finally the main feature of the tale, how two wily policemen finally get to the truth, which, in ironic fashion, turns out to have been right in front of them the whole time.
Poitier and Stieger are a lot of fun to watch as they move through all this opposition, and the film was a success at the box-office. It went on to win 5 Academy Awards (received nominations for seven) and also received a slew of other awards from America's critical bastions. There were two Poitier starring-sequels to In the Heat of the Night, featuring the continued adventures of Mr. Tibbs: The Organization (1971) and They Call Me Mr. Tibbs (1970).
Original page July 2016
Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Movemaking
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