Thursday, June 11, 2020

‘In the Heat of the Night’ 1967

Big city detective Virgil Tibbs VS. racist small town Sparta, Mississippi. Note the telling sign.

When In the Heat of the Night was released Aug. 2, 1967, racial strife was rife across the U.S. That summer, my family was living in Milwaukee, WI, where citizens were under curfew, enforced by The National Guard. This prompted my small town, white parents to move us back to Upper MI. I was only 7 and had no idea until my mother mentioned it recently, in reference to current racial tensions. Watching In the Heat of the Night in 2020 makes me realize how the film still resonates, and that moving or looking away is no longer an option.
On April 10, 1968, In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars. With tragic irony, the Academy Awards were postponed two nights, in honor of the funeral for the assassinated Martin Luther King. Heat won the Best Picture Oscar for 1967. Veteran actor Rod Steiger won for Best Actor against tough competition, for his nuanced portrayal as Police Chief Gillespie. Future director Hal Ashby got the nod for best film editing, as did Stirling Silliphant for best adapted screenplay, and Heat also scored for Best Sound. Amazingly, Sidney Poitier received no Oscar nomination for 1967, despite or because of the fact it was his biggest year in film: In the Heat of the Night; To Sir, With Love; and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?
Rod Steiger as Police Chief Bill Gillespie. Known for his "big" performances, Steiger shines in his small moments.
Here, the small town cop reacts to Tibbs engaging the suspect.

Heat gets the rap in some quarters for winning Best Picture Oscar over the innovative and iconic The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Certainly, those two films broke ground and spoke to its then-younger generation. Heat was also more of a genre picture than the other two, but it too pushed the envelope, in its depiction of racial tensions. Over 50 years later, in terms of storytelling, I’d say that In the Heat of the Night holds its own just fine, and it isn’t dated at all. In fact, one recent review I’ve read aptly described Heat as ‘once timely, now timeless.’
Chief Gillespie & Virgil Tibbs try to make lemonade from lemons with their uneasy alliance.

Except for a few well-chosen tweaks, In the Heat of the Night is a faithful version of the John Ball novel. The Oscar-winning screenplay by veteran Stirling Silliphant is taut and tough. The story of a murder in a small southern town, with a white police chief grudgingly asking the help of a black Philadelphia detective who’s passing through, is precisely told. There’s hardly a wasted moment in Heat. And as the local racial tensions mount over the visiting black cop going through their dirty laundry, screenwriter Silliphant’s dialogue doesn’t pull any punches. 
Warren Oates offers wonderful comic relief as Sam Wood, the Barney Fife of Sparta.

While Heat’s mystery is intriguing and the racial element most direct, what makes this movie especially watchable is its character study of small town life—southern gothic, really. The small town folks, when it faces a controversial crime, reminded me a bit of Anatomy of a Murder. As someone who grew up in one, these characters are quirky, flawed, but totally real. Director Norman Jewison caught the disparity of small town life beautifully. He juxtaposes the black and white, the rich and poor, rural with “progress,” good ole boys and bad girls, and all the folks in between, uneasily living together.
Anthony James as Ralph, the diner employee who may be Sparta's quirkiest resident!
James, memorable as the creepy chauffeur in 'Burnt Offerings,' passed away in May, 2020.

The strong characters are reinforced by a stellar ensemble cast, one of In the Heat of the Night’s many strengths. Poitier makes a terrific leading man and Steiger is a dynamic star character actor. Sidney was 40 at the time and didn’t look it, but I was shocked that Rod was only 42 as the aging, small town cop! Carroll O’ Connor was 64 when he reprised the role on television in 1988. Rod Steiger chews gum like Bugs Bunny munches carrots throughout this film, and gives me TMJ just watching him!
Steiger's Chief Gillespie may not be a crime solving genius, but he's got Virgil's number.

I am not a fan of Rod Steiger. I think he's talented, but for me, he’s the male version of Shelley Winters—a gifted actor who was too often an outrageous ham. That said, I think Steiger strongly deserved his Oscar. Except for a few scenes where he goes loud and does his motor mouth bit, I was so engrossed in the police chief's character that I at times forgot I was watching Rod Steiger. Gillespie, while a slightly scary and tough character, is ultimately decent, and most affectingly, a sad and lonely one. Steiger has some incredible moments here, sometimes with just a sad look in his eyes, or with uncomfortable body language.
Poitier's Tibbs' trip back home to Philly is interrupted during a fateful stopover in Sparta.

Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs is often the observer, watching and wondering how to deal with all these racist locals. Richard Burton once wrote that Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando both had the gift for stillness, making each physical movement count, and act as much with their eyes as through their dialogue. That describes Sidney perfectly here. He has some great moments of power, like when he's frisked, or consoles the widow, and when he shares a cell with the suspect.
These superb actors plus the ensemble cast are a major strength for 'In the Heat of the Night.'

The tension between Poitier's Tibbs and literally the rest of the cast is incredible. With the exception of Mrs. Colbert, the victim's wife, Virgil meets hostility and downright hatred at every turn. Tibbs is a black man who—in the eyes of the locals—has stepped above his subservient station, and is therefore a threat. The only difference between then and now, it was the norm back then. Poitier plays it cool for most of the movie, with the sense that his character has seen this all before. From the get go, the cop picks him up at the bus station as an instant suspect for the murder. Virgil continues to be quiet, though not obedient, until he hits his breaking point. It’s then Poitier pointedly proclaims his famous line: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”
Larry Gates recalls his cultured professor in another small town melodrama, Some Came Running. Only here, as town big shot Endicott, his charm is only skin deep. Gates’ lone, long scene contains the classic slap-off between his white bigot and the black cop.
Larry Gates as Endicott, the town big shot bigot. Doesn't he look like Dick Cheney?

Scott Wilson made his film debut, as a suspect Harvey Oberst, followed up with the same year’s In Cold Blood, in which he was promoted to star and killer. As troubled Harvey, Wilson uses those child-like blue eyes to great effect. Warren Oates as Sam, the Barney Fife wannabe tough cop, is very funny and likeable, despite the fact he's not the sharpest tool in the shed. He also gradually respects Tibbs' detective skills.
Scott Wilson as Harvey, a wrong suspect. In '67, Wilson starred as a real killer 'In Cold Blood.'

Lee Grant was back on the big screen in ‘67, after being blacklisted for more than a decade. She’s fascinating to watch as Mrs. Colbert, the widow of the Yankee who was going to start a factory to compete with local big wig Endicott—and hire “colored people!” Grant is pent up intensity personified, and with that distinctive husky voice to boot, though I found some her hand gestures a bit too Actors Studio. The recently deceased (5/26/2020) Anthony James is funny and spooky as Ralph, the diner dude, gleefully hiding pie from Oates’ cop. Quentin Dean is feral as Delores, the tough, small town tart. Fine familiar faces William Schallert and Beah Richards have their moments, too. The entire cast builds a most believable world here.
Lee Grant, back on the big screen, here as the victim's widow & as Sharon Tate's sister-in-law in 'Valley of the Dolls.'

Sparta, Illinois substitutes for Sparta, Mississippi as a backdrop for In the Heat of the Night. Why? Star Sidney Poitier did not feel safe travelling to the second Sparta, circa 1966. The week-long stint to film cotton fields was done in Tennessee, and Poitier slept with a pistol. However, director Jewison makes evocative use of his locales to depict hard scrabble small town life.
'Heat' catches the feel of small town life, thanks to Haskell Wexler's cinematography.

Haskell Wexler and Norman Jewison’s collective vision is great. Like Jewison’s first breakout dramatic hit The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night melds the visual, soundtrack, dialogue, and performances in a pleasing rhythm. Jewison started out directing musical and musical comedy productions, including the legendary Judy Garland variety series. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who just had the job of making 33-year-old Elizabeth Taylor look 20 years older in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?, now rose to the rare task of giving a black man the star treatment, which Poitier credited with enhancing his leading man status.
The look on Poitier's face as Tibbs, reacting to his fellow blacks picking cotton, is haunting.

In the Heat of the Night is filled with memorable shots: Sam’s bloody hand in front of the cop’s headlights; a close up of Tibbs, framed by his arms against the wall, as he is frisked; and Virgil’s staring at the chief, the car window a backdrop to cotton pickers as they drive by, as Gillespie jibes that this life is not for Tibbs. Perhaps the most classic shot is Philly detective Virgil Tibbs and southern cop Gillespie sitting on a bus stop bench together, a spin on the classic Nichols and May expression "proximity, but no relating."
Note the body language of Tibbs and Gillespie, as they reluctantly agree to team up.

And the cherry on this cinematic sundae is the jazzy soundtrack is by Quincy Jones, with Ray Charles singing the title song.
A few film writers have criticized that the eventual admiration between Tibbs and Gillespie was too pat—in the real world, perhaps. However, the screenwriter and director do a great job of giving subtle gradation to the breakdown in their defenses and growing respect for each other.
Ultimately, In the Heat of the Night still cooks on all burners. For anyone who thinks Heat is out of date, compare it to the same year’s instantly obsolete racial comedy, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Given what’s going on in this country as of 2020, I’d say In the Heat of the Night is a hotter film subject than ever.
'In the Heat of the Night's' final scene, Tibbs and Gillespie have come to respect one another.
FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 


  1. Super-great film, flawlessly written and directed, and acted iconically by the great cast including Lee Grant and Rod Steiger, led by the transcendent Sidney Poitier. Every one of his performances is an event...his very presence is packed with star power. My personal faves are Lilies of the Field, To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, but of course I love this one too. Especially appreciate Quincy Jones's soulful and knowing jazz score as well.

    1. Hey Chris, I'm a sucker for small town melodramas, plus throw in a good mystery, with a great cast, dialogue, plus great music... and a still powerful social statement to boot! I think 'Heat' is one of my new perennial faves!
      Thanks for reading me, Mister!

  2. Many thanks for this well-observed review and appreciation of an immortal movie. It's on my own personal Best 30 Movies list. And I enjoy your commentary on the performances -- though you did leave someone out! Quentin Dean as the ill-bred, slovenly, lying Dolorous Purdy -- giving my all-time favorite One Scene appearance in any movie. I'd love to know how Jewison directed her. I'm sure he told her slide down way low in the seat, don't look anybody in the eye -- until you do. Brilliant performance and directing there. Dolorous Purdy -- her progeny is still around today.

    1. Hi, Thanks! You know what? Dean and a couple other performers were in my original draft, which I trimmed as the review was too long. Quentin was indeed memorable, I think I referred to her as feral! I also saw that she retired shortly after "Heat" and one or two other films. Wondered why. I may have to write her back in!
      Cheers and thanks for the great comments,