Genre: Crime Drama and Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 49 min.
Release Date: August 23rd, 1967 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Norman Jewison Actors: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, William Schallert, Beah Richards, Quentin Dean
n Sparta, Mississippi, Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) patrols the quiet neighborhoods and humid streets at night. He stumbles upon the dead body of Colbert, a man who travelled from afar to build a factory for the small town. Temperamental police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), ceaselessly and noisily chewing gum, orders Sam to check the pool hall and local train depot, where he picks up Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a well-dressed, composed, reticent black man with $200 in his wallet. Immediately assuming the worst of the suspect, Wood takes him in for questioning – only to discover that Tibbs is a police officer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and just so happens to be their best homicide expert.
Reluctantly, Gillespie concedes his error and, though insistent that he doesn’t need any help with the case, asks Tibbs to look at the body. Encountering wide-eyed disbelief from nearly every prejudiced professional and common townsman alike, Tibbs grudgingly proceeds to point out obvious clues and runs tests on the corpse. But all it gets him is further alienation and a temporary shared cell with fleeing suspect Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson), a confused young man who happened upon Colbert’s body and snatched his billfold. When Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant) realizes that Tibbs is the only detective interested in catching the real killer, she demands that he be kept on the case, threatening to pack up her husband’s business and move on if her requisition isn’t met. On an interesting side note, Quentin Dean, playing the very small role of Delores Purdy, a 16-year-old girl who teasingly prances around her house naked at night and eventually turns various parties into suspects, unexpectedly received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress (alongside Grant’s own nomination for an equally simple and short appearance).
The murder is a continual mystery, investigated carelessly and with great disregard for proper procedure, attention to details, and examination of evidence. Inexperience and partiality dominate the improprieties, while it’s consistently entertaining to see Tibbs gain the upper hand over the diligently antiblack Gillespie, especially as he’s given less consideration than subsequent suspects. And the chief has to repeatedly, resentfully, crawl back to the superior, highly-educated sleuth for help. Here, reverse psychology proves to be an invaluable tool against the weak-minded. As each man gradually warms up to the other, amidst the persistent rivalry and racism, it becomes evident that Gillespie just might be the most sympathetic persecutor in a town clinging to old-fashioned intolerances (epitomized by the emotions and implications of a scene in which Tibbs drives through a field of black workers picking cotton).
“I know the laws in the state of Mississippi, thank you!” screams Gillespie as he routinely fails to maintain law and order in his jurisdiction and has his actions questioned by fellow officers and civilians – with his conclusions and theories frequently and rapidly put to shame. Jazzy, funky music (with the title song “In the Heat of the Night” sung by Ray Charles) spices up the racial tensions, which systematically generate hilariously unsettling moments from constantly strict contentions. There’s a surprising amount of humor spliced into the ominous mistreatments and blatant bigotry, with the screenplay’s character development immortalizing Gillespie (with Steiger winning an Oscar) and Tibbs (who would get his own sequel “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” three years later), marking their powerful collaboration as the primary subject over the murder mystery itself. The film would also go on to win the Best Picture Academy Award for 1967, beating out “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate.”
– Mike Massie