In the Heat of the Night: Review
Of the many films deemed Best Picture of the year by the Academy Awards, In the Heat of the Night is one of the few that manages a truly difficult accomplishment; that of remaining relevant through the years despite centering around a very era specific topic of the time in which it was made. And yet, because the central subject matter is still very much a part of our world today, if it weren’t for the 1960’s automobiles you might not know when this film was produced, let alone when it is supposed to be taking place.
In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967), is basically a blueprint for all good detective dramas. It’s the story of a Philadelphia police officer played by Sidney Poitier who is investigating a murder in Mississippi while matching wits with a redneck sheriff played by Rod Steiger. The twist is that Poitier is a black Northern detective simply traveling through town when due to some unfortunate circumstances is “encouraged” by his superior officer to aide the reluctant Steiger, a good old boy of the South. Ground-breaking for it’s time, the Oscar-winning film is every bit as powerful today and offers a gripping mystery with terrific dramatic performances including Warren Oats as one of the local cops and Lee Grant as the widow of the murdered man.
The credit for the film’s success is due in large part to the powerhouse talent of the impeccable cast. It’s just impossible to imagine two other actors attempting the challenging roles of Virgil Tibbs and Sheriff Gillespie. Poitier personifies the everyman who believes in justice as he is persecuted by the ignorant, and Steiger is just so achingly real in his portrayal of a man torn between intelligence and the bigotry on which he was raised. The truly interesting dynamic at play is the relationship that develops between these two men. Tibbs and Gillespie are from very different worlds with opposing values, and yet they cannot help but attain a certain level of mutual respect for each other. Both actors were at the top of their game in 1967, with Steiger receiving the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance, and Poitier (who had already won the Oscar three years earlier for Lilies of the Field) starring in two other high profile films of the year: To Sir, with Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Then, of course, you have director, Norman Jewison (Moonstruck, Fiddler on the Roof, The Hurricane) guiding the overall architecture of the film. Jewison contributes an expert eye at the helm, often utilizing a guerilla-type approach to shooting not seen in his previous films. Here, he presents the South in a straightforward and un-romanticized manner; the world of civil rights era Sparta, Georgia is depicted in situations as black and white as the segregated town itself in a film about unveiled prejudice.
And yet, Jewison deftly avoids heavy handedness without shirking away from the real issues pretty much the same way as the cast: presenting them in an extremely entertaining package. That accomplishment alone is worth an Oscar or two.