In the Heat of the Night is one of my favourite of Sidney Poitier’s films from the ’60s despite there being a lot of good ones to choose from. Look Who’s Coming For Dinner, A Raisin in The Sun, A Patch of Blue, the list goes on. What I like about “Heat” a little more is Poitier’s chemistry with Rod Steiger and a strong anti-racism message that is sadly still relevant today.
The film takes place in the small made-up town of Sparta, Mississippi, with Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oats) who discovers the body of Phillip Colbert, a wealthy industrialist. Colbert was set to build a factory that would have created 500 jobs in Sparta and make him the largest employer of black people in the area.
As Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) heads up the investigation, is initial gut reaction is for a drifter to be responsible. He orders Woods to check out the train station for anyone looking to get out of town, and there Woods finds Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier).
Seeing the black man, Woods draws his weapon on Tibbs and brings him to Gillespie without questioning. After a small exchange, Tibbs identifies himself has a Philadelphia Police officer who is heading back to Pennsylvania after a visit with his mother. On a call with Tibbs’ Cheif to confirm his story, Gillespie learns that Tibbs is Philly’s top homicide detective. It is recommended that Tibbs assist in the investigation and the two men reluctantly agree to do so for a few hours before the train is set to arrive.
Gillespie’s next suspect is a local man who was found to have Colbert’s wallet on him. The man is about to have a confession beaten out of him before Tibbs dismisses him. By determining that the murder took place much earlier than the town’s doctor first concluded, and that murder is left-handed he proves the suspect to be innocent.
This impresses Colbert’s widow who has become frustrated by the ineptitude of the Sparta police. She demands that Tibbs be placed as the lead of the investigation or the construction of the new factory will be placed to a halt. The two policemen are now forced to work with each other for much longer than they initially agreed to, and although they begin to respect each other as professionals… old habits are hard to break.
Gillespie: “Virgil? That’s a funny name for a n****r boy that comes from Philadelphia! What do they call you up there?”
(An annoyed) Tibbs: “They call me Mister Tibbs!”
Yeah, In the Heat of the Night does not hold back when it shows the rough side of the Deep South. Canadian director Norman Jewison wanted the film to reflect the mood of the civil rights movement but this is a backdrop for a murder mystery.
The meat of the film is our two heroes coming together despite the difficulties. The case begins to fall apart when either attempt to steer the ship on their own, and I appreciate how the film keeps the two from really become friends. Any attempt to do so would have come off a corny. Instead, there is begrudging respect they find in each other to work the case as a team.
I also respect how Tibbs never once attempts to lecture the people of Sparta for their overt racism. He calls them out on it a few times and does slap a plantation owner in the face (he deserved it), but his otherwise consistent professionalism allowed me to do plenty of head and fist-shaking at the screen for both of use.
“Heat” won 5 Academy Awards including Best Actor for Steiger and Best Picture in 1968. I was a little disappointed to not see Quincy Jones’ brilliant soundtrack on the list of nominees from that year, but I suppose I’ll have to give the Academy a pass considering he was nominated for In Cold Blood already. Dang, what a talent. #MarsApproved