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In the Heat of the Night is one amazing film. A standout for breaking new ground in many areas. In theory, it’s a police procedural about a murder in a small southern town. In fact, the movie poster log line was “They got a murder on their hands. They don’t know what to do with it.” The log line, sometimes called “one line,” is supposed to tell you what the movie is about. Not true in this case.

Some will say, including many critics, that the film is about racism. Of course racism plays a major part, it’s the major script device that keeps both protagonists in conflict. But the heart of the movie is the story of two prideful and powerful men, both outsiders in a no-win situation, who have to solve the murder.

The Story

A northern businessman, Colbert, is building a factory in the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi which will employ both white and black workers. When he is found murdered, an arrest has to be made, the town’s economic future depends on it. Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier, is a Philadelphia homicide detective just passing through town. Tibbs is first accused of the crime, later, he becomes a reluctant ally in the investigation. The racial tension escalates when Tibbs proves to be more insightful than the local Sheriff, Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger. Tension ratchets up again when Tibbs begins to suspect the leading employer in town, Endicott (Larry Gates) may be behind the murder. Endicott is a member of the landed gentry, and represents the old south.

The Protagonists

Gillespie is portrayed as an ignorant southern redneck sheriff, but he’s smart enough to realize that Virgil Tibbs has more expertise when it comes to solving murders. Gillespie doesn’t want Virgil Tibbs, but he needs him. Along with the mayor, he sets up Tibbs to be the whipping boy.

In one scene Gillespie takes full advantage of Tibbs own pride and prejudice…

Gillespie : You’re so damn smart! You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just going to stay here and show us all. You got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame…I don’t think you could let an opportunity like that pass by.

 

Even though it’s clear that Virgil Tibbs would be better off anywhere but Sparta Mississippi, his pride and desire to prove Endicott was behind the murder makes him stay.

The choice of Poitier for the part of Virgil Tibbs is an interesting one. In the 1960s, actors of color who could draw both black and white audiences were rare. He had already won an Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963. It can be argued that his roles before In the Heat of the Night were about sophisticated and noble black men, but the character of Virgil Tibbs had an edge not seen before. He took maximum advantage, and created one of the great characters of 20th century film.

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The Film

This is a movie full of magic moments. Many are a lesson in making great cinema. One of the most famous is the greenhouse scene where Tibbs, escorted by Gillespie, confronts Endicott. No spoilers here, but the scene is definitely in any film buff’s list of stunning moments. You sense the forces just beneath the surface. Endicott realizes that a way of life is slipping away.

Another classic scene happens when a new suspect is brought in.  Tibbs points out that Colbert was likely assaulted by a right handed person, and the suspect is left handed. The widow, Mrs Colbert is right there when Gillespie is embarrassed.

Gillespie : Well, you’re pretty sure of yourself, ain’t you, Virgil. Virgil, that’s a funny name for a nigger boy come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?

Virgil : They call me Mister Tibbs.

 

And of course the final scene at the train station. Virgil Tibbs and Gillespie shake hands and part. All the antagonism and prejudice is now behind them, they still live in different worlds, but there is a sense of mutual respect.

The Crew

Cinematography was by Haskell Wexler, one of the great cinematographers of the classic era, according to the American Cinematographers Guild. He had just won an Academy Award for Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. He would later win another, an shoot such classics as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Remember that 1967 was long before the age of digital enhancement. Everything in the release print happened in front of the camera. Wexler used classic tricks like using aircraft landing lights for automobile headlights to get the right night exposures. In those days the high ISO films hadn’t been invented. He also used zoom lenses because there wasn’t enough money for crane shots, and frequently not enough room for dolly shots.

The score was done by Quincy Jones, and is considered ground breaking even today. It’s a mixture of southern blues and jazz, at a time when both of those were largely unknown outside of a few very narrow demographics. All of the music in the film was unique. No preexisting music was used at all.

The movie’s theme song, sung by Ray Charles, which opens the film sets the mood and lets the audience know something unique is about to happen.

The Context

The world was changing during the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement became a powerful social force. The first wave of Baby Boomers were in their teenage years and actively rejecting the social order of their parents. Here’s just a few of the important events that preceded the release of In the Heat of the Night.

The Selma to Montgomery Marches. The 3 marches took place in March of 1965. The first march was known as “Bloody Sunday”. The third march was accompanied by 2000 Army troops and 1900 National Guardsmen called out for the occasion.

The Watts Riots of August, 1965. The biggest race riot of the time, encompassing 46 square miles of Los Angles. Racism is California was endemic. African Americans were confined to certain neighborhoods by restrictive real estate laws and practices, as well as police discrimination.

The rise of the Black Panther party in 1966.  Originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Academy Awards

 

Best Picture : Walter Mirisch as Producer

Best Actor in a Leading Role : Rod Steiger

Best Screenplay : Stirling Silliphant

Best Sound

Best Film Editing : Hal Ashby

Norman Jewison was also nominated for Best Director.

A few factoids

  • In the Heat of the Night was released on August, 2 1967 in New York, and August 23, in Los Angeles. A few weeks after the most destructive race riots in US history, the Detroit Riots of July 1967 in which at least 43 people were killed, more than 2500 stores looted and burned, and more than 400 buildings burned to the ground.  I was there in 1969, and parts of the city still looked like post nuclear Nagasaki.
  • The Academy Awards, where In the Heat of the Night was to win an Oscar, were delayed for two days due to the assassination of Martin Luther King.
  • In 1967 the movie rating system we are familiar with did not exist. However, the movie posters were marked “Suitable for Adults.”
  • The famous quote “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” is ranked #16 on the AFI list of top 100 movie quotes.