IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT added further sweat and suspense to the long, hot summer of 1967, a year when 159 race riots further inflamed a nation already on a burner over the infernal war in Vietnam and a simmering divide between generations and attitudes. To the bigoted, the timing for this steaming stew of Black/White, North/South, Rich/Poor tensions must have felt like cinematic arson, but beyond 110 minutes of palpable tension and forceful acting the message it delivered (aside from ‘Next time, stay on the train’) was finally humanistic and hopeful, replacing a fist with a handshake. *
A hot night in Sparta, Mississippi. When an important out-of-towner is found murdered, eager deputy ‘Sam Wood’ (Warren Oates) grabs the first handy suspect, another visitor, ‘Virgil Tibbs’ (Sidney Poitier). The dead man is white, and Virgil ain’t, so it’s clearly a case of “case-closed”. To the ire of ‘Sheriff Gillespie’ (Rod Steiger), Virgil turns out to be a detective from Philadelphia, and he’s further embarrassed when Tibbs is tabbed to help track down the real killer. Virgil’s decency and smarts win some converts, but there’s a hostile element in town that will never accept a black man as an equal, let alone (in Virgil’s case) an obvious superior.
Burly and boiling, Steiger’s flamboyant bluster as the over-matched and unappreciated lawman garnered most of the notice, and he’s great fun to watch, but Poitier’s more subtle take on Tibbs has more depth. Warmly recognized for several years, Poitier owned the screen in ’67, with a trio of hits, this sweat-soaked thriller balancing audience-pleasers Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and To Sir With Love. He’s at his best here, Tibbs a blend of professional confidence and innate calm civility covering a core of outrage. We accepted Poitier’s customary excellence along with his charm, and tended to overlook how good he really was in the part. Steiger is both on target (in quieter moments expressing loneliness, and with frustration over his clumsy staff) and overboard (the gum-chewing bit). He’s very good, but was less showy and more powerfully effective in The Pawnbroker and Doctor Zhivago.
Ripe support from Oates (on the rise, The Wild Bunch just over the horizon); Scott Wilson as hapless but fundamentally decent suspect #2 ‘Harvey Oberst’ (24 in his debut here, Wilson also scored In Cold Blood); Lee Grant as the anguished, furious wife of the victim; sultry Quentin Dean, 22 in her quite brief career, playing 16-year-old white trash tramp and window-tease ‘Dolores Purdy’; perpetually weird Anthony James as the creep manning the diner; and Larry Gates as local poohbah ‘Endicott’, whose arrogance-vested slap at Tibbs gets a famous backhand in return, a quintessential mid-60’s moment that capsule captured the decade’s turmoil and change.
Superbly directed by Norman Jewison, the screenplay from Stirling Silliphant took the basic plot outline and main characters from a 184-page book that won John Ball an Edgar Award as Best First Novel, the first of ten Virgil Tibbs mysteries he’d write. Silliphant had a good track record doing suspense dramas for both film (5 Against The House, The Lineup, Village Of The Damned) and TV (Naked City, Route 66, Alfred Hitchcock Presents). Though he’d guided The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison was known mostly for steering comedies (Send Me No Flowers, The Russians Are Coming). The changes they made from the book deepened the subplots as well as changing locales, motives and events. The plot mechanics run a distant second (the rushed resolution is almost an afterthought) to the utterly convincing context and characterizations, thoughtfully layered beneath their surface intensity. Filming in Mississippi was wisely deemed too risky, so Illinois contributed its very own Sparta, and some work was picked up in the Tennessee towns of Dyersburg and Union City.
The $2,000,000 expended came back 12-fold, the $24,000,000 gross placing 11th among the year’s box-office hits. When Oscar time rolled around, it took Best Picture, Actor (Steiger), Screenplay, Film Editing (Hal Ashby) and Sound. Jewison’s direction was nominated as were the Sound Effects.
Quincy Jones did the score, highlighted by Ray Charles nailing the title song. Alan & Marilyn Bergman wrote the lyrics, and those for the three other ditties heard on radios during the story, including the memorably awful “Foul Owl On The Prowl”.
With further milieu enhancing work from James Patterson, William Schallert, Beah Richards, Peter Whitney, Larry D. Mann, Matt Clark, Khaleel Bezaleel, Timothy Scott and Jester Hairston.
—Poitier as Tibbs returned in 1970 with They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!, and again in 1971’s The Organization. Neither clicked. As popular as this movie was—and both Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and To Sir, With Love did twice as much business—Poitier, having reaching the peak at 40, topped out as a box-office draw. Steiger’s career as a headliner had one more success (No Way To Treat A Lady), then wobbled off-track with a slew of flops.
—those dang Yankee Oscars. Sorry, Sheriff, but good as In The Heat Of The Night is, from this balcony we think both Bonnie And Clyde and the un-nominated In Cold Blood were better. And for that matter The Dirty Dozen and Cool Hand Luke ought to have been on the nominee roll for Picture, rather the wastage of Doctor Doolittle (c’mon!) or bland Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? The script award belonged to The Graduate. Heat‘s awards for editing and sound belonged to either Bonnie And Clyde or The Dirty Dozen. Steiger brings heat, but he’s not as hot as Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke. Reeking atmosphere, In The Heat Of The Night is a fine film, but it’s likely Academy voters felt the times called for a statement: the ceremony held in April of ’68, an even more volatile year, with the King assassination just a week before the show.
—the mediocre TV series, with Carroll O’Connor and Howard E. Rollins, ran for 7 years, 1988-95.
—more than a half-century on, it’s disgusting and tragic to grasp that there are still tens of millions of fellow citizens whose ignorance couldn’t be thawed by a saint with a flamethrower.