Released by United Artists in 1967, Norman Jewison’s mystery drama In the Heat of the Night became a huge critical and commercial success on release. Based on John Ball’s novel, the film was written by Stirling Silliphant and stars Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.
In the Heat of the Night is as much an attack on the futility of bigotry as a mystery drama. Racism has always been a hugely provocative issue. Recent news headlines convey just how much society still needs to do to equally embracing all of its citizens. During the 1960s, the United States had to address race riots and civil rights marches in cities across America.
So, for a major Hollywood studio to make a major movie that tackles racism and set the story in the Deep South was as much a risk as a surprise.
In a small Mississippi town police officer, Sam Wood discovers the murdered body of wealthy industrialist Phillip Colbert who had planned to build a factory there. When prejudiced Sheriff Bill Gillespie finds a well-dressed Black man, Virgil Tibbs, at a train station, he arrests him as a murder suspect.
Gillespie becomes embarrassed when Tibbs reveals himself as a top homicide detective from Philadelphia. Gillespie phones Tibbs’ boss who suggests that Tibbs should assist in the investigation, something which neither Gillespie nor Tibbs are happy about. They reluctantly agree to work together on the case.
Tibbs examines the body and concludes that the murder happened earlier than what the doctor stated, that the murderer was right-handed and that the murder happened elsewhere, meaning that the body had been moved.
Gillespie arrests another suspect. They plan to beat him into confessing but Tibbs tells them that this suspect is left-handed. Besides, the suspect has an alibi which can be backed up by witnesses.
Frustrated by the ineptness of the police, Colbert’s widow is impressed by Tibbs and wants him to lead the investigation. She threatens to halt the construction of the factory until her demands are met, which persuades the leading town members to agree.
Tibbs suspects plantation owner and powerful resident Eric Endicott because he had opposed the building of the factory. Tibbs and Gillespie visit Endicott to ask a few questions. Endicott is a racist and becomes deeply offended by being investigated by a Black man. Their meeting is tense and has immediate repercussions.
In the Heat of the Night is an effective race drama and forensic murder-mystery thriller that is expertly directed by Norman Jewison from an excellent screenplay from Stirling Silliphant, with a perfect jazzy score from Quincy Jones (title song sung by Ray Charles). However, the film is raised to classic status by the magnificent performances from the leads. Sidney Poitier, one of Hollywood’s greatest and most important actors, plays Tibbs with a credible sense of dignity, patience, and intelligence, especially when pitted against the prejudiced Gillespie.
Poitier’s splendid performance is liberating because it is free from all the traditional racist Hollywood caricatures. In the Heat of the Night is also important for being the first major Hollywood film to have lighting that respected the Black performer. The cinematographer Haskell Wexler enabled the lighting glare to be toned down to better show the features of the black actor.
The cantankerous police chief Gillespie is brilliantly played by the outstanding Rod Steiger. Tibbs is shown as open-minded and professional, whilst Gillespie is an ineffective and bigoted police chief.
Along with the two splendid leads is an impressive support cast. Warren Oates shines as the sleazy policeman Sam Wood, Lee Grant effectively plays the widowed Mrs. Colbert, Larry Gates is particularly impressive as the racist Endicott, and newcomer Anthony James is convincing as the bigoted counterman Ralph.
One of the most memorable moments in the film is when Tibbs slaps Endicott. This moment is not in the novel. Sidney Poitier claimed that the scene almost did not make the picture, insisting that he would make the movie only if the scene would be included in every version of the picture. This is a powerful scene that shows a black man respond so decisively to a white supremacist.
In the Heat of the Night went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Steiger, even though it was released in the same month as the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Steiger paid tribute to Poitier and how he helped him understand the effects of racial prejudice.
In 2002, In the Heat of the Night was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Unfortunately, the anti-racist message in this classic film still urgently needs to be heard today.