In the Heat of the Night (1967): Oscar-Winning Film Starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier

A message film in the guise of a murder mystery, In the Heat of the Night is also more a male buddy picture set in the Deep South than a small-town film pe rse. John Ball’s novel was adapted to the screen by Stirling Silliphant, who constructed two strong male characters.

The saga starts appropriately enough at the train station, which is a typical beginning of such films. The air is filled with quiet, country sounds, shattered by the distant blare of a diesel train, whose light is reflected on the surface of the polished rails. The platform is deserted and so are the streets. As the train rolls by, the panning camera reveals a weathered sign that reads: “You are now entering the town of Sparta, Mississippi. Welcome!”

The camera zeroes in on the feet of a black passenger, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) soon to be arrested as a murder suspect. Cut to a diner. Sam Wood, a police officer, and his boss, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) are talking to Doc Stewart about a murdered man. “Came all the way from Chicago to build us a factory,” says Doc, “to make something out of this town. Look what it got him!”

Later, at the police station, the tough and ruthless Gillespie interrogates Tibbs, “What’s a Northern colored boy doing down here” “Waiting for the train,” answers Tibbs calmly. “I try to run a clean, safe town, where a man can sneeze and not have his brains beat out,” says Gillespie.

This first encounter is marked by mutual suspicion and contempt. Tibbs protests the tossing of his wallet, “I earned that money,” but Gillespie’s bigoted response is: “Colored can’t make money like that! Hell, boy, that’s more’n I make in a whole month.” “Down here in Sparta,” says Gillespie, “we don’t have the problems you got up there. No riots. No mobs running through our streets. Nobody yellin’ ‘Burn, baby, burn! We got time to keep the law.” The murdered man’s widow, Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), says she did not know much about her husband’s work, though she “always knew what mattered to him,” and building this factory did. She promises to go on with the building contingent that Tibbs stays on the case.

Nonetheless, the town’s white racist hoodlums demand to “get rid of the nigger.” At the local diner, the cook refuses to serve him food. The blame is finally put on the mayor, who sold out. As Eric Endicott, the victim’s prime enemy, says: “When you voted to play his game, uproot this community, turn it into an industrial center, you signed his death warrant.” Endicott murdered Colbert because he knew that the town’s new economic structure would signal his loss of power. As a boss, Endicott used to “sit up on his hill and run this country–until we moved in.” As noted, In the Heat of the Night was part of a cycle of “male buddy” movies. As such, it depicts the gradual evolution of male camaraderie, based on friendship and respect between two unlikely candidates. The bigoted police chief Gillespie is relatively new on the job. Lacking the necessary skills to carry out his duties, he needs an expert on the case. There’s no doubt that Tibbs is brighter better-trained homicide investigator. A professional and a gentleman, he even offers to pay for a phone call to his headquarters in Philadelphia.

The interaction between the two men must overcome the obstacle that Tibbs is an educated black from the North. Gillespie is the more provincial and uneducated, living in the rural South (in most films, it’s the other way around with blacks in rural regions). The two middle-aged are unmarried and have not even “come close to it.” “Don’t you get a little lonely” asks Gillespie in a quiet moment. “No lonelier than you,” says Tibbs. “Don’t get smart, black boy, don’t pity me” says Gillespie.

Nonetheless, the two men learn to like and respect each other and, at the end, Gillespie carries Tibb’s suitcase to the train station. After parting with an amiable handshake, the camera cuts to a sign at the end of tracks that reads: “You Are now Leaving the Town of Sparta. Hurry Back!”

Through its buddy-buddy yarn, In the Heat of the Night explores racial prejudice, the damaging effects of stereotypes that prevail between white and black men, and corrupt representatives of the law who are not doing their job. For example, it’s established that Sam Wood, a white police officer, has raped a young girl whom he liked watching in the nude.

Poitier did not want to shoot the film in Mississippi because he had been harassed by the Ku Klux Klan when he had visited there with Harry Belafonte in 1964, so most of it was shot in Sparta, Illinois.

In later films, Sidney Poitier continued to plays morally superior blacks, as for example in To Sir with Love (1967), in which he was cast as a ghetto teacher, and in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968), as a world-renowned surgeon. These three films catapulted Poitier into international stardom. However, like the progress of blacks in the society at large, it was too little and too late. And it did not last long: The position of black performers in Hollywood of the 1980s–onscreen and off was no better than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

The movie’s political message is centrist, as one of its characters says, “Things take time. You can’t ‘legislate tolerance.'”

“In the Heat of the Night” led to a number of inferior sequels, with Poitier playing the same role in “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!” (1970), and then in “The Organization” (1971). In 1988, it was made into a TV series, under the same title.

Oscar Context

In the Heat of the Night was the first problem film about racial discrimination against blacks to win the Best Picture Oscar, though later pictures with similar issues, like Martin Ritt’s Sounder in 1972, and A Soldier’s Story in l984, also directed by Jewison, were also nominated.  In 1967, the timing was “right” to honor a topical film, and In the Heat of the Night, about the collaboratioon of a bigotted police chief (Rod Steiger) and a black homocide detective (Poitier), won 5 Oscars, including Best Actor to Steiger.

Of the five nominated films that year, the best was Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a revolutionary film in more senses than one. But its glamorizing attitude toward the two gangster characters, and the fact that it was made by the New Hollywood–Warren Beatty served as producer and star–all worked against it. To think that the Academy honored In the Heat for best editing and sound, over the amazing achievements in these areas in Bonnie and Clyde, is still shocking.

Lines to Remember

“They call me Mister Tibbs!”