Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)
In the Heat of the Night (1967): Dir. Norman Jewison. Written by: Stirling Silliphant. Based upon the novel of the same name by John Ball. Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, and Larry Gates. Unrated. Running time: 109 minutes.
It was the late 60’s and America was knee-deep in cultural revolution and upheaval. Fortunately, the Academy honored a film that addressed rather than dodged the changes in the American landscape. Equal parts mystery and social commentary, In the Heat of the Night merged the classical film-making of the past with a raw and visceral style.
Choosing the Deep South as its setting, Night follows black Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, tasked with aiding the Sparta, Mississippi authorities solve a killing of their own. Reluctantly accepting his help is the white sheriff Bill Gillespie, a bigoted man who nonetheless hides an iron code of honor. With barely an ally, Tibbs and Gillespie must uncover the killer as racial tensions mount around them.
It’s at the point now in my countdown where the films are starting to feel much more modern. Director Jewison accentuates the sweat and grime of the rural South, keeping the film well-paced but lingering on key character moments for the viewer to ponder. The screenplay from Silliphant alternates effortlessly between procedural drama and the inherent conflict of a black man in 60’s Mississippi.
Of course, Sidney Poitier lends his gravitas to the beleaguered Tibbs, in a role demanding multiple contrasting emotions: confidence and confusion, courage and fear, retaliation and restraint. Alas, the Oscar went to Rod Steiger as Gillespie, in a less demanding but solidly acted role. Much of the film’s surprising humor derives from the duo’s interactions with one another—particularly Gillespie as he acknowledges Tibbs’s smarts and slowly but surely rethinks his prejudices.
Even if the film’s ending fixes everything a bit too neat, it doesn’t strain realism by fully reconciling the two men. It does, however, hint at the possibility for change, and the obstacles toward that goal. It does not preach, it shows—with responsibility and craft.
Next film: Oliver!, 1968