“They’ve got a murder they don’t know what to do with. They need a whipping boy.”
Yet another screening where I knew nothing about the film at first, In the Heat of the Night turned out to be a delightful surprise when I randomly selected it for screening this week. It’s a prolific film which holds up both cinematically and thematically today, bolstered by powerful performances which dare to immerse the film in the sleazy realism of its horrific setting. It’s a brute force display of cinematic talent and clever presentation that push the film beyond a paint-by-numbers murder mystery and into an acclaimed work of genuine drama.
The story picks up from the very first scene: a seedy police officer cruises through the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi, soon discovering the body of one of the town’s most prominent figures. The police immediately suspect Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who appears to be the only black man in a shamelessly racist society that wants him gone. When Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) discovers that Tibbs is actual a homicide investigator from Pennsylvania, and a talented one at that, Tibbs is dragged into a murder investigation which he initially wants no part of. As he uncovers the truth behind a high-profile murder while also trying to stay alive in such a hostile environment, Tibbs is confronted with a challenging series of obstacles in the greater pursuit of justice.
While the film takes off at a brisk pace, it’s not until Sidney Poitier takes center frame does this movie really hit its stride. He carries a powerful sense of gravity, indications of vast knowledge and firm intensity which he keeps muted for most of the film. Without too much dialogue to drive the point too far, you see simply through Poitier’s eyes how his character has had to adapt to a prejudiced world. The film gets its themes across by instilling frustration in the part of the audience: Virgil Tibbs is unquestionably the most cunning character in the entire film, and he could easily make quick work of this investigation, but infuriating roadblocks keep popping up throughout the screenplay entirely due to his race. You can tell that the story was carefully planned out to present its moral argument in the strongest possible way, getting the audience overwhelmingly invested in seeing Tibbs come out on top.
The “murder mystery” piece of the film was clearly given the backseat in favor of a more societal conflict, a wise decision that nonetheless leaves the police work feeling a bit hollow. The film places its clues and draws out its suspense with familiar preparation, but we’re often left desiring more confrontation between the film’s most interesting two characters: Tibbs and Gillespie. Rod Steiger brings an impressive performance alongside Poitier as the chief of police, and you see his confusion and bigotry play out in the most plausible way. He’s not the most likable character, but he perhaps feels the most realistic, falling back on his backwards belief like the rest of the town but uncertain how to explain them away. It’s a convincing set of traits which you’ve probably observed in real life, and Steiger draws on these traits for some dynamic characterization. Along with Poitier as the smooth professional make for a fascinating duo, replacing the film’s mysterious killer as the most engaging aspect of the narrative.
As we approach Oscars season, it’s easy to fall back on criticizing the Best Picture winners of yesteryear (looking at you, Shakespeare in Love) for appealing to trends and playing it safe. It’s comforting to know that films such as this one, which don’t even begin to fall back on safety, never seem to fall into those discussions. Not only is In the Heat of the Night an important movie which lays out its themes clearly and powerfully, it’s a well-acted story of suspense and intrigue which make it rewatchable and exciting as well. Yet another must-see work in the police thriller genre, it’s a proud inclusion on any list of American classics.
Films Left to Watch: 892