Directed by Norman Jewison
In the Heat of the Night tackled overt racism in a small Southern town at a time when to do such a thing was a bit of a risk (in contrast to, for example, 2018’s Green Book). In Sparta, Missouri a young Philadelphia cop, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) finds himself pulled into a homicide investigation involving the death of a wealthy industrialist who was murdered, it seems, for offering employment to black men.
The reasons I think In the Heat of the Night works so well is because this isn’t just about racism. Poiter’s character here has more to do than to just point out the obvious flaws in the ways the white characters think. He is stoic, proud and, at times, gets ahead of himself. He is more than just a vessel through which a film can shame racists and show the virtues of a non-white man. He instead gets to be a character, a person with instincts, contradictions and desire, even if it’s tampered down just a little bit.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Tibbs and local police chief, Gillespie (Rod Steiger). The Chief will at first try to coerce a confession from Tibbs, who was arrested by a younger, more dim police officer named Sam Wood (Warren Oates) while he sat idly by at a train depot. Tibbs will inform the Chief that he’s a homicide detective up in Philadelphia, and when they call Tibbs’ chief to clear this up, the chief insists Tibbs stay behind to help the investigation, something neither he nor the Chief much cares for.
There will be a few false arrests, including another of Tibbs himself, and a little misdirection as you often expect in murder mysteries such as these. Still, at the forefront of every moment in the film is the challenge Tibbs faces as a black man in such an insular, white southern town.
The most memorable moment of the film comes from an altercation with another wealthy industrialist, Endicott (Larry Gates), who is offended not only that he’s being questioned with the air of suspicion about a murder but that the man doing it is black. This encounter takes place in the greenhouse of his large estate, surrounded by black laborers working in his cotton fields.
Endicott slaps Tibbs who wastes no time slapping the old man right back. In response Endicott assures him that not so long ago he could’ve had him killed for such a thing. Tibbs leaves, Gillespie shrugs, and then Endicott’s butler, himself black, glares at the old man. When they’re all gone Endicott’s face morphs into something suggesting remorse, hatred and everything in between.
We never return to Endicott, and any suspicion that he’s the killer quickly vanishes. Tibbs will admit that he wanted it to be Endicott, but the evidence takes them another direction, as surely it must when the killer can’t be that obvious.
So that scene carries a different weight. It is almost tangential to the plot, the type of scene which in a modern murder mystery would be glossed over and moved on from once it’s clear the man is not the killer.
There are many similar character moments in The Heat of the Night, not all pertaining to racism. Such bigotry is instead just one of many things going on right under the surface in Sparta.
Around town there’s the late night diner cook, with his long and sinewy neck and preference for contemporary pop music, the seductive woman who knows Sam Wood has come by to leer at her thought the purposefully open blinds. There’s the clerk at the police station who continually tries to deceive Gillespie and suggest that it’s his brother (who works the day shift) who he’s really mad at when something hasn’t yet been done, there’s the first falsely convicted suspect (a young Scott Wilson) who gives an inspired monologue about someone he once loved, and then there’s the murdered industrialist’s wife, who champions Tibbs and threatens Chief Gillespie that she’ll pull their factory (with all its promised jobs) out of town unless Tibbs is allowed to stay on and investigate.
Though forced to work together, Tibbs and Gillespie are never on the same wavelength. At first the Chief wants Tibbs gone, in fact they both do. Then Tibbs’ own supervisor insists he stay, but after Gillespie tracks down a vagabond he thinks must’ve done the deed, he tells Tibbs to get out of town. Unable to purposefully botch an investigation, Tibbs tells the old man that he has arrested an innocent man, an when Tibbs is at the depot, waiting to get the hell out of town, Gillespie tucks his tail between his legs and asks for more help.
Later in the film a group of Confederate-branded racist thugs will corner Tibbs and, though no punch is thrown, nearly kill him. Gillespie shows up just in time, stands up for Tibbs, but then he orders Tibbs to leave town, now for his own safety. Unable to let the case go, Tibbs stays behind, and though he’s risking life and limb, it seems Gillespie somewhere in there develops a begrudging respect for him.
So they stick it out till the end, but neither of them ever really thinks it’ll go that far. It’s always an agreement made to just do this one last thing, but then there’s always another last thing, at least until the revelatory climax in which the racist thugs get their comeuppance, the killer is unmasked (so to speak), and the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie crescendoes.
Much of this, at least in a plot description, sounds downright formulaic, and maybe it is by today’s standards. The film, however, is masterful despite any predictable outcomes. Poiter, who I think is perhaps underrated because of his role in many white films (including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) commands every scene, and Steiger (as Gillespie) has a certain stubborn, captivating charm. I mean just the way he chews that gum when we first meet him, and the perfectly off-center way in which he wears his hat, goddamn. He’s very similar to the Marlon Brando sheriff in 1966’s The Chase, though that character is imbued with a certain integrity that it takes Gillespie about 80 minutes of runtime to achieve.
It all works so that the final cathartic beat, in which the two men share a smile and a nod, lands an emotional punch.
*Side note: this is the film for which Hal Ashby won an Academy Award for Best Editing. It would be the second to last Norman Jewish film he edited (at least credited) before becoming a full-fledged director. Jewison mentored Ashby and in this film helped show him the ropes (as evidenced by Ahsby’s Associate Producer credit) before taking a backseat on The Landlord so Ashby could officially take over the director’s chair.
Up Next: Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011), The Weather Man (2005), The Palm Beach Story (1942)