|Director: Norman Jewison|
|Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by John Ball)|
|Stars: Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs), Rod Steiger (Bill Gillespie), Warren Oates (Sam Wood), Lee Grant (Leslie Colbert), Larry Gates (Eric Endicott), James Patterson (Mr. Purdy), William Schallert (Mayor Webb Schubert), Scott Wilson (Harvey Oberst), Beah Richards (Mama Caleba)|
|MPAA Rating: NR|
|Year of Release: 1967|
Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night was released in 1967, the height of the Civil Rights movement and one of the most violent years in modern American history (between 1967 and 1968, there were 384 riots in 298 different cities, including the most infamous in Detroit and Newark). As the film is both a mystery-detective story and a socially conscious exploration of the fraught relations between whites and African Americans, it was a case of immaculate timing—the concerns outlined in the film were exactly those that had America tightly in its grip. Yet, more than 40 years have done little to diminish its impact, which speaks volumes about the film’s enduring narrative and thematic richness and the fact that race relations—particularly in the starkly divided Trump Era, which has witnessed a horrifying resurrection of very public white supremacist rhetoric and action—are still a haunting problem.
The story involves the murder of rich Northern businessman who recently moved to the fictional small town of Sparta, Mississippi, in order to build a factory. An African American named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) happens to be waiting in the train station late that night after visiting his mother in another town, and the police arrest him, not only because he is black, but because he is an outsider. Tibbs’s outsider status is demonstrated from the opening frames of the film, which show him arriving in town on a train, emphasizing that he is not a part of this community. Likewise, the film ends with his leaving town on a train, proving how transitory was the nature of his being there. This geographical emphasis is important to keep in mind because the film is arguably as much about the North/South divide as it is about the black/white divide.
Once Tibbs is arrested, the police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), learns that he is, in fact, an ace homicide detective from Philadelphia who makes more in a week than Gillespie makes in a month. At the insistence of the widow (Lee Grant) of the murdered man, Tibbs is convinced to stay in town and help in the investigation, even though he is only grudgingly appreciated by Gillespie and despised by most of the locals. In this way, In the Heat of the Night can be seen as a late entry into the post-World War II socially conscious “message movies” in which a lone African-American character was inserted into a predominantly white environment, which allowed for racial tensions to be raised and eventually worked out (these were usually military-themed films, such as Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave).
As the lone African-American character stranded in racist, small-town Mississippi, Virgil Tibbs is a fascinating and powerful character. At first, Tibbs seems to bear out many of the same characteristics that are often attributed to “Uncle Tom” characters: upright and noble, but powerless when faced with oppressive white forces. When Tibbs is first arrested in the train station by deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates), he doesn’t give the slightest hint of resistance. During the arrest, Wood refers to Tibbs with the derogatory name “boy” numerous times, slams him against the wall, and mocks him as a thief for having money in his wallet. Yet, Tibbs does nothing until he arrives at the police station and, in what Pauline Kael rightfully called a “high comic moment,” reveals himself to be a police officer, much to Gillepsie’s consternation (one of Steiger’s greatest moments in the film is when he shows the badge to Sam Wood and responds to the deputy’s dumbfounded silence with a roaring “Yeah! Oh yeah!”).
It turns out that, in almost every conceivable way, Tibbs is the superior of every white man around him. He is intellectually superior to all the Sparta police officers; he is superior to the local coroner in knowledge about human anatomy; he is physically superior to a group of violent bigots who corner him in a warehouse; and he is morally superior because, even when he slips into angry prejudice of his own, he eventually recognizes his weakness. This multi-faceted superiority is obvious in every way, and Gillespie knows it when he says angrily, “You’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just going to stay here and show us all.”
Tibbs first demonstrates some of his authority when Gillespie demands that he turn over the results from the coroner’s lab. Gillespie is after the wrong man, and Tibbs wants to ensure that his opinion on the case is heard. “You gonna give me that?” Gillespie asks, to which Tibbs replies firmly, “No, I am not.” Later, Gillespie, in a fit of anger, yells, “Virgil, that’s a funny name for a nigger boy who comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?” Tibbs’s answer, which is so firm and indelible in Poitier’s delivery that it was used as the title for one of the film’s sequels, is: “They call me MISTER Tibbs.” His stern insistence on the formal name “Mr. Tibbs” is especially notable because, up until the 1960s, most Southern newspapers omitted the courtesy titles “Mr.” and “Mrs.” before African American names.
However, Tibbs’s most notable exercise of power happens just over an hour into the film. Tibbs and Gillespie have gone to question Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), a wealthy plantation owner who is suspected of the murder. Endicott at first appears to be comfortable with Tibbs, and they happily discuss flowers in his greenhouse. However, when Tibbs proceeds to explain to Endicott why they are questioning him, Endicott, infuriated that he is a suspect being questioned by “a Negro,” silently walks up and slaps Tibbs across the face. While a traditional “Uncle Tom” character would have taken the slap with wounded dignity, Tibbs immediately, unthinkingly slaps Endicott right back. (Poitier insisted that this was the first time a major motion picture had ever depicted a black man striking a white man.)
At this moment, the film makes clear that Tibbs is putting himself in danger because Endicott is a powerful man in Sparta. But, at the same time, it emphasizes not only Tibbs’s physical authority over the small, shrunken old man, but the fact that Endicott’s slap was pathetic in its outdatedness. His following comment, delivered on the brink of tears—“There was a time when I could have had you shot”—only reaffirms this notion that Endicott is the last of a pathetic breed, the powerful plantation owner so intensely celebrated in The Birth of a Nation (1915), and now an outmoded relic of a time gone-by.
The scene could have ended there, but it continues outside, which shows the dual nature of the black/white relationship and racism in general. Tibbs, thoroughly insulted and bitter at Endicott’s condescension, declares his intent to bring Endicott in for the murder: “Give me another day. Two days. I’m close. I can bring that fat cat down! I can bring him right off this hill!” Gillespie immediately notices the switch, that Tibbs has been goaded into going after Endicott for personal rather than professional reasons, and he remarks: “Oh, boy. You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t you?” Tibbs, as it turns out, has his own prejudices that bend him toward abusing the law to satisfy his own personal injury—at least temporarily. As Tibbs later admits, “I was hung up trying to get Endicott for personal reasons.” The film suggests that, had Tibbs not realized this, he would have continued trying to get Endicott and, therefore, would have missed catching the actual criminal.
In the Heat of the Night’s narrative and emotional core is the guarded relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie, which begins in almost comical hostility and ends in mutual admiration. What is most fascinating about the relationship is the fact that, with the exception of the Endicott episode, Tibbs and Gillespie spend almost no time actually working on the murder case together. Instead, the moments between the two characters are usually in the form of disputes over how Tibbs is investigating the case on his own. Yet, Poitier and Steiger have such strong chemistry together and they act so well in their respective roles that their relationship comes alive and grabs you on a gut level. It grabs you most of all because each actor is excellent in portraying the slow evolution of his character’s worldview. This is not a one-sided development where only the obviously racist Gillespie learns to be more tolerant. There is just as much development in Tibbs’s character, although his growth seems to be in moving beyond his Northern elitism.
For a race drama that is now more than four decades old, In the Heat of the Night, which won five Oscars in 1968, including Best Picture, has aged extremely well. Norman Jewison’s direction is crisp and invigorating, and the gritty cinematography by Haskell Wexler, who was nominated for an Oscar that same year for his black-and-white work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967), avoids many of the stylistic flourishes that often date other films of its era, giving it a generally ageless look (the Oscar-winning editing was by Hal Ashby, who would soon become a major director of films such as Harold and Maude , Shampoo [1975), and Coming Home ). Prolific writer Sterling Silliphant, who was making the transition from writing primarily television dramas to feature films, provides a taut, engaging screenplay from John Ball’s 1965 debut novel that is rich with both fiery outbursts and subtle tensions. In the Heat of the Night remains a powerful film that retains its ability to both entertain and make you think; its message about the slippery nature of racism and the way imbedded, unquestioned beliefs can contaminate an entire community is one that should never be forgotten and, unfortunately, is needed now more than ever.
|In the Heat of the Night Criterion Collection Blu-ray|
|Audio||English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Supplements||Audio commentary from 2008 by director Norman Jewison, actors Lee Grant and Rod Steiger, and cinematographer Haskell WexlerVideo interview with director Norman JewisonVideo interview with actor Lee GrantVideo interview with Poitier biographer Aram GoudsouzianSegment from a 2006 American Film Institute interview with actor Sidney PoitierTurning Up the Heat: Movie-Making in the ’60s, 2008 documentary“Quincy Jones: Breaking New Sound,” 2008 programTrailerEssay by critic K. Austin Collins|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||January 30, 2019|
|The new 4K digital restoration on Criterion’s Blu-ray of In the Heat of the Night was taken from the original 35mm camera negative, and it looks fantastic. This is easily the best I have ever seen the film look on home video—it is slightly darker than the 2014 MGM Blu-ray, but the colors are much more intense and deeply saturated, giving Haskell Wexler’s first-rate cinematography a richness I had not seen before. It very much looks like a film of the late 1960s, as grain is strong and present throughout, but never distracting. Digital restoration has cleared the image completely, with no signs of age or wear. The monaural soundtrack, presented in Linear PCM, was taken from the 35mm magnetic DME track and also sounds great. Quincy Jones’s groundbreaking, Southern-influenced jazz score sounds magnificent, but so do the fine details of the sound design (I have always been a big fan of the expressive squeaking and creaking and cracking of Gillespie’s office chair and his rattling air conditioner and the way those sounds enhance the tension between him and Tibbs during their initial meeting). |
In terms of supplements, Criterion has kept all of the material that originally appeared on MGM’s 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition DVD from 2008: an audio commentary by director Norman Jewison, actors Lee Grant and Rod Steiger, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler that was originally recorded for the 2001 DVD edition; “Turning Up the Heat: Movie-Making in the ’60s,” a 21-minute featurette about the film’s production that includes then-new interviews with Jewison, Wexler, producer Walter Mirisch, and filmmakers John Singleton and Reginald Hudlin, among others; “Quincy Jones: Breaking New Sound,” a 13-minute featurette about Jones’s unique musical score featuring interviews with Jones, lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and musician Herbie Hancock; and an original theatrical trailer. The commentary is particularly notable because, although recorded separately, the four contributors are nicely edited together to create a virtually seamless discussion. Jewison spends most of his time discussing the film as a whole, shooting locations, the characters, and how the movie fits into the history of the late 1960s and the Civil Rights revolution in the United States. Wexler is much more technical; he seems to relish his opportunity to spend long period of time discussing various lighting techniques and camera lenses. For those interested in the nuts and bolts of shooting a movie, you could do a lot worse than listening to this two-time Oscar winner. Steiger and Grant contribute the least to the commentary in terms of time, but they still have many interesting things to say. New to Criterion’s edition are a pair of video interviews with Jewison (11 min.) and Grant (15 min.); an 8-minute segment from a 2006 American Film Institute interview with actor Sidney Poitier; and a new 18-minute video interview with Aram Goudsouzian, author of Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon about the rise and fall of Poitier’s career as an actor and icon of the African American community from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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