In 1967, in the fictional small town of Sparta, Mississippi, the summer is producing the kind of punishing nights that don’t allow for sleep. Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates!) drives his nightly patrol, briefly pausing at the home of 16-year-old nudist, Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean), before crawling downtown. There, he discovers the burgled and bludgeoned body of the wealthiest man in town – a man with plans of growing Sparta with an integrated factory. After Police Chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), visits the crime scene, Officer Wood searches the town for suspects, when he happens upon an African American man waiting at the train station. Being a black stranger, one with a wallet full of cash, Wood assumes he has found his perp. Back at the station, Gillespie makes the same immediate assumption, until brief questioning of the man reveals he is Mr. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), an expert homicide detective from Philadelphia. Clueless as to who the killer might actually be, with his face thoroughly covered in egg, prejudiced Gillespie begrudgingly asks Tibbs to stay and work the case for him. Just as prejudiced and begrudging, Tibbs takes the job, as he has missed the only train out of town for the time being. Together, they face the impossible politics of racism and small town life, and discover this crime, with a veneer of simplicity, is far more complex than either could have guessed.
In The Heat Of The Night is one of the Oscar Winners nobody seems to talk about anymore, but its passionate filmmaking and jaw dropping exploration of racism makes it resonate just as strongly today. That is partially thanks to this drama being disarmingly funny. Perfectly timed moments of real humor cut the intensity with hilarious ease, and occasionally amplify it. Nicknamed “Super-spade Versus The Rednecks”, audiences of the day were stunned by the exploits of Detective Tibbs – a man not just on a mission to solve a crime, but who demands respect from the white bigots in Sparta.
Sitrling Silliphant’s screenplay (adapted from the novel), is exquisite, and doesn’t allow anything to be easy for the characters or their predicament. Rod Steiger’s Oscar Winning performance is a fascinating portrayal of a good man who is none-the-less hardwired for bigotry. It was (and for many people, still is), a way of life at the time, and watching him be slowly pulled away from his ignorant beliefs is a hard-earned thrill. Gillespie’s temper is outfitted with a half-inch fuse, and his racist outbursts often feel instinctual, rather than methodically chosen by the pen of an objective writer. That same pen is responsible for one of the most iconic lines in cinema history: “They call me ‘Mr. Tibbs!’” It’s an incredibly restrained line, in a scene which could so easily have been overwrought. Wisely, the language is written plainly, and the powerful delivery of Poitier expands the statement into something more like, “Northern people treat me like a human, you ignorant piece of shit”.
In every department, the film is staffed by a rock star filmmaker. Prolific Norman Jewison directed, Hal Ashby edited, Quincy Jones (Yes, Thriller’s Quincy Jones) composed the score, as well as a song performed by Ray Charles, and the legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler shot this movie in astonishing perfection. The images are so perfectly composed, that even after having not watched it for years, I remembered so many scenes from In The Heat Of The Night exactly as they are.
Quincy Jones’s score is painfully cool. His fiery (may I call them “acid”?) jazz compositions provide the perfect tone for every scene. Occasionally, his cues are a little too on-the-nose, as they enforce the meaning of lines we already fully understood, but his tunes are so tasteful, it’s hard to complain. This project was one of his earliest film scores, and the indelible music he created here understandably made him a rising star.
It all comes together to make extraordinary cinema. This is the kind of film experience which stays with you forever as an instant icon, despite a few noticeable flaws. One awfully distracting error, which is far more noticeable in the HD age, shows up in a single night scene. Every actor is practically always dripping with sweat (what with the title and all), but during one exterior, all performers spout vapor from their mouths. Reason being, Sidney Poitier refused to shoot anywhere south of the Mason Dixon. So, the deepest location they filmed was in Tennesee. It sort of breaks the tension in an unfortunate way, but one can hardly focus on that single blemish on this otherwise fantastic film.