In the heat of the night, there is murder;
In the heat of the night, there is crime.
There is prejudice pointing the critical finger
And a murderer biding his time.
One must see where his biases blind him;
One must see where his aptitudes end.
If another can help, shouldn’t one get behind him,
Even if he’s more ally than friend?
There are many who won’t understand it;
There are many who’ll say it’s not right,
But stretching convention may help to expand it,
And pay off in the heat of the night.
Rating: G (perhaps PG would be better)
Here’s another Oscar winner I can cross off my list of classics yet unseen. In a strong year with films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Cool Hand Luke, I was interested to see what made this mystery drama so much more worthy of Best Picture and Best Actor (for Rod Steiger). While the film itself is an excellent police drama, it’s clear that it was the right film released at the right time, and even if it ruffled some contemporaries’ feathers, it made history by doing so.
For starters, a police patrol car winds through the small Southern town of Sparta, passing some of the key players, only to stumble upon the dead body of the richest man in town. While Steiger’s Chief Bill Gillespie chews his bubblegum vehemently, a black man waiting for a train is arrested on a groundless suspicion and reveals himself to be Officer Virgil Tibbs from Philadelphia (Sidney Poitier). Now Tibbs and Gillespie must collaborate to solve the crime.
While the setup seems simple enough and many films since have forced black and white characters to work together, not many carry the tension of these two men who clearly hate their present situation. Gillespie wants only to get Tibbs out of town, but he knows this case is beyond him and that he needs the other’s expertise as a forensics specialist. Tibbs likewise cooperates only under orders, but eventually his sense of pride and responsibility drives him to uncover the truth. Gillespie would gladly condemn the first suspect, and Tibbs isn’t infallible either, but the two of them complement each other in ways they don’t fully recognize at the time.
The period and place turn out to be the most challenging aspects, since Tibbs’s race angers nearly everyone in town as he pokes around for the truth. He earns some respect for his deductions, but whenever someone acts hostile or refuses to cooperate, we’re never sure if they’re acting guilty or simply expressing their racism. The film’s greatest and most famous scene is the infamous slap, in which Tibbs gives as well as he gets and leaves everyone shocked. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the scene and was equally surprised, considering the when and where the film is set. Considering this was the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed less than a year after its release, this scene really is a brilliant microcosm of the civil rights movement; Tibbs remains calm as he questions the suspect, but when he is struck, he returns in kind, as any equal man would. I doubt anyone could have pulled it off as effectively as Sidney Poitier, and I thought he deserved the Oscar more than Steiger. (Seriously, Poitier had this role, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, with Love [my favorite of the three] all in the same year, but didn’t get one Oscar nomination?)
As a mystery, In the Heat of the Night takes its time with the reveal, employing subtle foreshadowing, though the timeline of events on the fateful night could have been better explained. Ultimately, this is a film about respect, hard-won respect between two outsiders who shouldn’t have judged each other too quickly. For a film tackling difficult issues like race and abortion, In the Heat of the Night is both a hard-hitting product of its time and a dual character study that is still relevant today.
Best line: (Virgil) “They call me MISTER Tibbs!”
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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