In the Heat of the Night: Male Camaraderie in a Small Town

In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison, is more of a murder mystery, set in the Deep South, than a generic small-town film per se.

John Ball’s novel was adapted to the screen by Stirling Silliphant, who constructed two strong characters. The film begins appropriately enough at the train station–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: “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 the 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 ploce station, Gillespie investigates 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.”

Mr. Colbert’s widow (Lee Grant) did not know much about her husband’s work, but she “always knew what mattered to him,” and building this factory did. She promises to build it on one condition, if Tibbs stays on the case. But the town’s white racist hoodlums demand to “get rid of the nigger”; at the 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.”

A “male buddy” film, In the Heat of the Night depicts the evolution of male camaraderie: the development of 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. Indeed, Tibbs is a brighter and better trained homicide investigator. A cool professional and a gentleman, he even offers to pay for his phone call to his headquarters in Philadelphia. The interaction between the two men must overcome the fact that Tibbs is an educated black from the urban 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). Middle-aged, neither has ever been married, not even “come close to it.” “Don’t you get a little lonely” asks Gillespie. “No lonelier than you” says Tibbs. “Don’t get smart, black boy, don’t pity me” says Gillespie. But they learn to like and respect each other and, at the end, Gillespie carries Tibb’s suitcase to the train station. They part with a handshake, and the camera cuts to the sign at the end of tracks:”You Are now Leaving the Town of Sparta–Hurry Back!”

The film explores racial prejudice and the damaging effects of maintining and perpetuating stereotypes–among whites and blacks, representatives of the law and those expected to be protected by them. For example, Sam Wood, a white police officer, has raped a young girl, whom he liked watching in the nude.

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

Poitier: Morally Superior Black Man

Sidney Poitier plays here another morally superior black man, just as he has played in To Sir with Love (1967) and in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968). These three films catapulted Poitier into national stardom, but like the progress blacks made in society, it was too little and too late. And it did not last long: The position of black performers in Hollywood of the l980s–onscreen and off–is worse than it was in the l960s.