Film Review: In the Heat of the Night
In 1967, Norman Jewison released In the Heat of the Night, based on the 1956 novel of the same name by John Ball. Starring Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, James Patterson, William Schallert, Beah Richards, Peter Whitney, Kermit Murdock, Larry D. Mann, Quentin Dean, Anthony James, Arthur Malet, and Scott Wilson, the film grossed $24.3 million at the box office. Nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Sound Editing, the film won the awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Adapted Screenplay as well as the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama and Best Screenplay.
After visiting his mother, Philadelphian Virgil Tibbs is arrested on suspicion of the murder of a prominent factory owner in Sparta, Mississippi. However, Tibbs is a homicide detective in Philadelphia and is told by his superiors that he should assist the locals in solving their case. Now, partnered by the racist Police Chief Bill Gillespie, Tibbs displays his prowess in finding the murderer, causing Gillespie to eventualy respect him.
Winning over many other good films for Best Picture, In the Heat of the Night is a great and well-made film, especially in how the characters feed off each other. On one hand, there’s Chief Gillespie. He may be a casual racist, but he’s also probably the only reasonable authority figure in Sparta. He gets reasonably upset at how his men just arrested a cop. Further, the man flat out acknowledges that Tibbs is an expert in identifying murders and Gillespie even begs him for his help. What’s more is that even when he wanted Tibbs to leave in the first place, he does do the right thing and rescues him from an angry mob halfway through the film. The film also shows how notable he is as a character simply because he’s serving a town that, in his own words, “don’t want me.”
On the other hand, there’s Tibbs, a man that doesn’t take anything from anyone, seen when he returns a slap from Endicott, a rich white bigot, with a slap all his own. His tenacity is also shown early on when asked what people call him in Philadelphia and he responds that “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” The film also shows just how much of a way with words, Tibbs has when he’s able to talk his way out of a second mob by getting the leader to realize just why his sister went to the home of an abortionist. However, the film doesn’t put Tibbs on a high pedestal as it shows that he’s bigoted towards rich white people, seen when he calls Endicott a “fat cat” and tells Gillespie that he can “bring him right off this hill.” This exchange also shows Gillespie that he and Tibbs really aren’t so different.
The film also does something a bit interesting with how, aside from Gottlieb and Tibbs, it essentially treats police as useless. However, that’s for a very good reason. The police force in Sparta are usually great at the things they usually do, such as covering their beats and tracking people down, seen when the dogs are chasing after the guy attempting to flee into Arkansas. However, they’re not too great at solving a murder case and even arrest the wrong guy in doing so. But it really isn’t their fault since Sparta hasn’t had a murder in a long time and the tactics the police force were using were ones employed by a small town and didn’t befit a case of that magnitude. The reason Tibbs is so good at figuring everything out is because he’s an office in a much larger city, one that’s probably used to having several murder cases going at once.
It’s also very entertaining in how there are multiple red herrings when it comes to who really did it, with multiple people wrongly accused, such as Tibbs because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s also Oberst, suspected as he was caught with the victim’s wallet but was cleared because he was left-handed and the victim was murdered by a weapon used by the right hand. The film also offered up Officer Sam Wood as another who is falsely accused due to not wanting to reveal his being a Peeping Tom but was cleared because Tibbs noted he couldn’t have driven the victim’s car as well as his own squad car.