Sunday 19 October 2014

Movie Review: In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

A simmering murder mystery overheated to the boiling point by racial tensions, In The Heat Of The Night is a seminal cinematic achievement, a turning point in the portrayal of blacks on the screen and a riveting small town thriller.

In the small southern backwater of Sparta, Mississippi, night patrolman Sam Wood (Warren Oates) finds wealthy businessman Mr. Colbert dead in the street, killed with a blow to the head. The local redneck police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) orders a sweep of the town, and Wood picks up Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) at the train station. Black, well-dressed and very much a stranger, Tibbs is immediately a suspect, and Gillespie treats him with racist contempt. But Gillespie is stunned to learn that Tibbs is a Philadelphia police detective, passing through Sparta while visiting his mother.

Through a combination of pressure from his superior and his personal pride, Tibbs stays in Sparta to help solve the murder, while Gillespie is grudgingly convinced by Sparta's mayor (William Schallert) to accept Tibbs' help. Tibbs and Gillespie never really get along, but start to tolerate each other as they track down persons of interest including Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), small-time drifter Harvey (Scott Wilson), Colbert's business rival Endicott (Larry Gates), and late night diner counterman Ralph (Anthony James). Sam Wood also emerges as a suspect, as well as being implicated in a sordid unwanted pregnancy involving a 16 year old local girl. With Mrs. Colbert threatening to pull her late husband's investment out of town and Tibbs attracting an increasing number of enemies, the pressure mounts to catch the murderer.

Directed by Norman Jewison and written by Stirling Silliphant based on the John Ball book, In The Heat Of The Night draws one of the most distinct before-and-after lines in Hollywood movie history. Poitier's Guess Whose Coming To Dinner, also from 1967, portrayed a black man being accepted into a white liberal educated family. In The Heat Of The Night has no such acceptance: Virgil Tibbs is a qualitatively better law officer than Gillespie; and through his sheer force of conviction, Tibbs will prove to Sparta and all its bigoted residents that a black man will overcome deep-rooted racism and serve the cause of justice.

For all its redefining of racial relations, In The Heat Of The Night is also a fine, complex murder mystery. In sweltering heat made worse by prevailing hot winds of xenophobia, plenty of suspects emerge as the potential killer, and Tibbs gathers personal enemies by focusing the investigation in unexpected directions. He is convinced the drifter Harvey is innocent when plenty of evidence points to his guilt, and Tibbs rocks the town to its core by suspecting Endicott and then getting involved in the unwanted pregnancy case. The film's climax does feel rushed, and Jewison would have done better to provide some of the secondary characters a bit more room to breathe.

In The Heat Of The Night maintains its tension by not caving in to any easy moments of reconciliation. To the bitter end, Gillespie just barely finds a way to work with Tibbs, and never misses an opportunity to make Tibbs' life harder than it needs to be. The film avoids becoming a buddy movie, as Gillespie's respect grows by barely perceptible increments. It's only in the final scene that Tibbs gets the benefit of the slightest kind gesture and phrase, and even then, Gillespie wraps his gratitude with a tinge of relief that the two are finally parting ways.

Two moments from the film stand out and earn their place in movie history. In the first, when Gillespie, who has been callously referring to Tibbs as "boy", asks Tibbs what they call him in Philadelphia, he roars back "They call me MISTER Tibbs!."  And in the second, Endicott is insulted that he is considered a suspect in the Colbert murder and slaps Tibbs hard. Tibbs returns the slap, just as hard. It's a shocking, time-stands-still moment, a black man striking a respected white cotton magnate deep in the south.

The two central performances are perfect, primarily because they don't stray from the essence of the two characters. Poitier emphasizes Tibbs' pride, confidence and hints of justified arrogance. Steiger keeps Gillespie true to a small-town cop, refusing to admit he is in over his head, furiously chewing his gum to compensate for the absence of any useful detective skills, while eyeing Tibbs with a combination of suspicion and contempt.

In The Heat Of The Night the movies encountered an inflection point. A murder was committed, and race relations on the big screen changed forever.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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