Classic Movie Review: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Title: In the Heat of the Night 
Release Date: August 2, 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation

Set in a fictional Southern town of Sparta, Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night opens in a Norman Rockwell setting that quickly deteriorates into a nightmare scenario.  Police officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) cruises through the town until he comes upon the dead body of a Northern industrialist who is building a factory in the town.  Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) tells Wood to check the railroad station for any strangers, and there he finds a Black man sitting all alone and immediately arrests him.  The man is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and he is not a murderer but simply there because he was changing trains after visiting his mother.

It’s soon revealed that Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia and is let go.  But since the Sparta police are obviously incompetent, the widow of the industrialist, Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), asks Tibbs to stay and investigate her husband’s murderer. This sets up an uneasy alliance between TIbbs Gillespie  as they attempt to work together to solve the mystery.  Poitier and Steiger put in excellent, multi-layered performances which are the strength of this film.

Some of the directorial intent about race relations feels a bit clunky today, but I suspect was powerful in 1967, just two years after Selma and as race riots rocked American cities.  One standout scene is when Tibbs questions a plantation owner named Endicott. Things get heated and Endicotts slaps Tibbs and Tibbs immediately slaps him back. Endicott asks the police chief “what are you going to do?” and Gillespie says “I don’t know.” It’s clear that just a few years earlier Gillespie would have been required to kill Tibbs or call out a lynch mob (even if he didn’t want to) but things have changed enough at this point that Gillespie can do nothing.  Nevertheless, a mob of white men do get together to try to find and beat (maybe kill) Tibbs, adding tension to the investigation.

While Poitier and Steiger stand out, some of the other performances are weak.  Particularly, Anthony James who portrays the diner proprietor Ralph straight out of Southern Gothic nightmare and Quentin Dean, whose bit part as a pregnant teenager seems to be based on a school play performance of Mayella Ewell.  But by and large this movie stands the test of time.  Oh, and the bluesy soundtrack by Quincy Jones, with Ray Charles singing on the title song, is absolutely perfect.

Rating: ****