In the Heat of the Night must have been something big when it was released in 1967 at the height of the civil rights movement. I can only imagine what audiences in the south must have thought about a film in which an African American cop solves the crime of a murdered white man.
I really liked this film, both for its murder mystery and for its racial message. But when I think about it in the context of 1967 it becomes even more remarkable. The hicks in this fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi were not caricatures of southerners — they were realistic portrayals of what it was like in some southern towns in the 60s. Sure, the crime itself wasn’t racially motivated, but the town’s reaction to the involvement of a smart, northern, black cop was downright scary. Sometimes I still shake my head in disbelief that people ever felt this way about people of color, but then I remember my one year living in the south and it all comes back. Heck, the civil rights movement was less than 50 years ago!
The film also has a sort of groovy late 60s vibe to it as well which added to the fun. Some of the townspeople, especially the guy who worked behind the counter at the diner, had a real Dobie Gillis quality. And the soundtrack by Quincy Jones and the title song by Ray Charles added to the 60s groove.
But this film is really all about two performances — Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. Steiger won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Sheriff Gillespie, a complex character caught between wanting to do the right thing for his town and his disrespect for not just an outside cop, but a black cop. Steiger was brilliant and believable — at times you dislike him and at other times you are empathetic toward him and that’s the sign of a complex piece of acting. Steiger made some great films over his career, including Dr. Zhivago and On the Waterfront, but In the Heat of the Night was a triumph. And Poitier was wonderful as Virgil Tibbs, a character he went on to portray in several sequels. The classic moment is of course when Gillespie smarts off to Virgil and asks him what they call him in Philadelphia and Poitier says “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Magic.
Next Up: #74 The Silence of the Lambs