Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant based on the novel by John Ball
Flipping through Roku channels a few weeks back, I stumbled across some obscure old movie channel that maybe had a dozen or so films available on it, and surprised by the quality of some of the titles, as a check to see if the channel was still working, I clicked on "In the Heat of the NIght" to check to see if the channel was worth keeping or deleting. I ended just sitting there watching the whole movie again for like the tenth or twelfth or however many times I take a regular pilgrimage back to Sparta, Mississippi. It's constantly amazing to me just how easily I can get sucked into "In the Heat of the Night". Perhaps it was kizmet this time, that I chose to reimmurse myself with it in this, the Era of Insurrection in the Dying Days of our most racist and incompetent President. I have genuinely worried lately that these last few years of my movie reviews, especially the movies that are more political just have greater resonance now then they will in the future, or that because of the times we live in that many of my perspectives on cinema might be off sometimes, or perhaps tainted by this era; the film analysts of the future are gonna be fascinated with our reaction to films during these last few years.
That said, I don't think anybody's ever thought of this film as dated; arguably it feels more revelatory now then ever, even some of the goofier parts, like when Virgil (the great Sidney Poitier) fights off a gang of White Supremacists with a giant steel pole in an empty garage. Hell, I watched the film "Just Mercy" last week, and that movie which took place mostly in the '80s and '90s seemed like it wouldn't have been that out of place if you told me that it was in the same universe as "In the Heat of the Night". Perhaps it's just eye-opening for white people like me to think that this movie still feels like it's plausible today. Somewhere in some small southern town, some black man is getting racially profiled unjustly right now, (or some large city or, frankly anywhere in this country) and they're not lucky enough to be Virgil Tibbs. Perhaps the most fortunate aspect of the film is that unfortunately, the film seems to be timeless.
The Best Picture Oscar winner of 1967, one of cornerstone years of American cinema, “In the Heat of the Night,” is as intense a movie to watch as it has ever been. In a small Mississippi town, a man has been murdered, but not just any man, a rich man from up north who was going to build a factory and give about 1,000 residents jobs, including African-Americans. With limited police capabilities, the cops start looking for suspicious characters, and at a train station, they find a man in a suit and tie who obviously isn’t from there. Not only did they racially profile a black man, but Virgil Tibbs , is a fellow police officer, and apparently the best homicide detectives in Philadelphia. Gillespie (Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning role) decides that since they have him already, he might as well see how good a detective he is. This isn’t exactly what much of the townfolk would’ve wanted, but the threat of no factory being built is perceived as possibly a bigger problem than a black man looking into the murder, and besides, he’s leaving in a few days anyway, if he can get out alive.
What may make this film feel so strong today is that that director Norman Jewison decides to follow the investigation of the case, and not dwell on the racism, at least not in the narrative of the film. Something that nobody recalls when thinking about the film is that, it's a fairly straight-forward mystery procedural. When the ugly face of racism does pop its head out, either between the characters naturally or from outside sources, it gets even more suspenseful because it's interrupting a legitimate investigation. The most notable example of this is when a lead suspect named Endicott (Larry Gates) is interrogated. He owns a cotton field where most of workers are Blacks who pick cotton in the fields, and has a ceramic statue of a blackface clown on his walkway. During one line of questions, Endicott slaps Tibbs, and Tibbs surprises him and everybody else in the audience by hitting him back. This is a landmark moment in film, the first time a white man hit a black man, and was hit back. Maybe a lesser actor, but you can’t do that to Sidney Poitier. At this point, he was already the first Best Actor Oscar winner for his roles in "Lilies of the Field", and had, in general become the stoic figure of the first true African-American movie star. I try to seek out at least one of his movies to watch a year; he's one of my favorite actors and seems the standard-bearer of indelible poise and quiet personal strength. Arguably, no one has ever had a more powerful onscreen presence.
But he hadn't hit someone back though; in fact, before the film, he was often criticized by the Black community for often seemingly portraying the "good negro" in most of his films. It's true, he rarely played villains and most of his characters were ovely-idealized portrayals of African-Americans, often un-sexual, sometimes seeming too ideal to truly be believable. He wanted to make sure that no matter what, his characters would make a good positive examples of what African-American can be, since there often wasn't other positive portrayals of Black people in film. Just earlier in the year, he starred in "To Sir, with Love" where he played a beloved Bahamian teacher in the lower class end of London and in "Guess Who's Coming for Dinner" as a young Black man trying to earn the respect of his girlfriend's liberal parents before marrying her. Both of those are good films; I've even written on "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"? before in this Canon, but they don't exactly evolve Poitier beyond this perception, until "In the Heat of the Night", until this scene in particular
I can probably poke holes into the investigation and how the
murderer was eventually found out, but like most great mysteries, it’s about
the investigation process, not how its results or the improbabilities of the
investigation. Still though, there's such a haunting, claustrophobia to the movie that's seriously underrated. I love the matching shot Jewison has with a twig of a twig of a cotton branch being spun in Poitier's hand with this amazing POV shot of a tree being fed into a shredder. I'm not sure why Norman Jewison's name does get mentioned much among the great directors; I guess its because it's hard to fit him in a genre box, since he wasn't necessarily an auteur director and was often more a go-to filmmaker who could do a little bit of anything, but god damn, his directing career stretched five decades before he retired after his last film "The Statement" in '03, and he made a lot of good and sometimes great films. "In the Heat of the Night" is probably his best, but I wouldn't begrudge anybody who'd put "Fiddler on the Roof" or "Moonstruck" up there instead, and that's saying nothing of "The Cincinnati Kid" "The Russians are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" the original "The Thomas Crown Affair", "Agnes of God", "A Soldier's Story", "...And Justice for All" and probably his last really great film "The Hurricane", just to name a few.
His filmmaking is quiet and intense here, but if there's something that really elevates the movie from groundbreaking to all-time great, that isn't credited enough, and I mean that literally, it's Quincy Jones's score to the film. It's not technically an original score that's arranged, I guess...; he's credited with the "Music by" label specifically, but that lush orchestral jazz and R&B sound just enraptures the mood of the movie. I'm fairly convinced that the main reason that the movie, two decades after the film, got a TV drama series adaptation was because that title track is just too soaring and stirring to only use for one piece of media. (There also were two Virgil Tibbs sequel films that, honestly I find pretty unwatchable; I usually forget they exist until someone brings them up.) That's what's put this movie over-the-top, a more traditional classical score would've just not felt right, but this more modern take on the delta blues, especially with that Ray Charles howl, it makes this story feel more real. Like there's nothing else to do in this town but to try to sweat out that balming, fly-sticking humidity, without going on a crime spree, and its been that way for years.
"In the Heat of the Night" is that weird crime story, where the movie is intensely about the solving of the case and yet it's the last thing anybody thinks about with the film. It's that perverse intensity too, where racism boils through a town that nothing else seems to matter. I know people who've seen the movie several times, and couldn't off-the-top-of-their-head tell you, "Who did it?" Or for that matter, "why did they it?" I didn't even discuss it once here, and considering the answers to those questions, that's actually quite shocking. You'd think that'd be a weakness, but that's actually a big strength of the film. The best mysteries are never about the who, but about the how of the investigation and this movie is like a journey into a horrible and disturbingly still realistic world than an analysis of the world itself. It’s no coincidence the town is called “Sparta,” and Poitier’s character is named Virgil, although most people call him something else..., but not here.