In the Heat of the Night (1967): Best icture Oscar, Starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger

A message film in the guise of a murder mystery, In the Heat of the Night is a male buddy picture set in the Deep South.

John Ball’s novel was adapted to the screen by Stirling Silliphant, who constructed two strong male characters, well played by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.

The saga starts appropriately enough at the train station, which is a typical beginning of small-town films. The air is filled with quiet, country sounds, shattered by the distant blare of a diesel train, whose lights are 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 (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!”

in_the_heat_of_the_night_4_poitierLater, 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.

in_the_heat_of_the_night_3_poitierNonetheless, 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!”

in_the_heat_of_the_night_2_poitierThrough 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.

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 and soft. 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.


Quotable Movie Lines:

Poitier: “They call me Mister Tibbs!”

Shooting Context:

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 during the civil rights movement in 1964. Thus, most of the story was shot in Sparta, Illinois.  The producers then changed the name of the fictional Mississippi town in the movie to Sparta so they wouldn’t have to pay for repainting the town’s water towers.

Oscar Context

in_the_heat_of_the_night_1In 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 collaboration of a bigoted police chief (Rod Steiger) and a black homicide 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.


Detailed Plot

Mr. Colbert, a wealthy man from Chicago who planned to build a factory in Sparta, Mississippi, is found murdered, and White police Chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger) is asked to find his killer.

African-American northerner Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), passing through town, is picked up at the train station with cash in his wallet. Prejudiced against blacks, Gillespie suspects he is guilty, but then finds out that Tibbs is a Philadelphia homicide detective. After the racist treatment, Tibbs wants to leave as soon as possible, but his chief orders him to stay and help.

Leslie Colbert (Lee Grant), the victim’s widow, frustrated by the police’s ineptitude, is impressed by Tibbs’s expertise when he clears another wrongly accused suspect. She threatens to stop construction on the factory unless Tibbs leads the investigation. Under orders from the town’s mayor, Gillespie collaborates with Tibbs.

The two policemen begin to respect each other as they are forced to work together to solve the crime. Tibbs initially suspects wealthy plantation owner Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), a racist who opposed the new factory. When he attempts to interrogate Endicott about Colbert, Endicott slaps him in the face, but Tibbs slaps him back, which leads to Endicott sending a gang after Tibbs. Gillespie rescues Tibbs, and orders him to leave town for his own safety, but Tibbs refuses to leave until the case is done.

Tibbs asks Sergeant Sam Wood (Warren Oates), the officer who discovered the body, to retrace his steps the night of the murder. Tibbs and Gillespie accompany Wood on his patrol route, stopping at a diner where the counterman, Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James), refuses to serve Tibbs. When Tibbs notices that Wood has changed his route, Gillespie begins suspecting Wood of the crime.

Gillespie discovers that Wood made a sizable deposit into his bank account the day after the murder (which Wood claims is from gambling) and Lloyd Purdy (James Patterson), a local, files charges against Wood for getting his 16-year-old sister Delores (Quentin Dean) pregnant, Gillespie arrests Wood for murder, despite Tibbs’s protests. Purdy is insulted that Tibbs, a black man, was present for his sister’s interrogation about sexual encounter with Wood, and he seeks revenge on Tibbs.

Tibbs clears Wood by finding the original murder scene and pointing out that Sam would not have been able to drive two cars at the same time, his police car and the victim’s car. Tibbs admits that he knew that Wood changed his route not to hide the fact that he was a murderer, but was a witness.

Tibbs tracks down the local abortionist, who reveals that a man paid for Delores’ abortion. When Delores arrives, Tibbs pursues her outside, where he is confronted by the murderer, Henshaw. Purdy’s mob tracks down Tibbs, holding him at gunpoint when he proves that it was Henshaw, not Wood, who got Delores pregnant. Henshaw murders Purdy and then confesses to Colbert’s. He planned to rob Colbert to get money for Delores’s abortion, but accidentally killed him.

In the last scene, Tibbs boards the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio train, after an emotional farewell from the now respectful Gillespie.