Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger
Until recently, In the Heat of the Night was one of the few Best Picture winners that I hadn't seen. There's no reason in particular for this oversight; I always figured I'd watch it eventually, I just didn't feel any real urgency to get to it. Part of the reason was that I had the idea that the film was unlikely to have aged well, that like many Hollywood "issue" movies, the sharpness of its progressive bent would have dulled over time to the point where it either seemed "quaint" and old fashioned or possessed of the sort of well-meaning patronizing and reliance on stereotype that would now make it seem offensive. I assumed that in a year which saw a couple of historic films nominated for Best Picture, In the Heat of the Night was the happy medium between a pair of revolutionary movies (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate) and a pair of "safe" movies (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle). I was wrong on both counts. In the Heat of the Night is an excellent film that approaches its volatile material with such directness that it maintains its sting and continues to feel relevant even in light of the changes that society has undergone in the years since (though how much society has changed is up for debate).
In the Heat of the Night opens with the discovery of the murdered body of Philip Colbert by Deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates) in the sleepy town of Sparta, Mississippi. As the police comb through town, Wood eventually comes across Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) at the train station and immediately places him under arrest after finding a substantial amount of cash in Tibbs's wallet. He brings Tibbs in believing that the case is now quickly closed and Sparta's police Chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), is pleased - but only until he learns that Virgil is a Philadelphia homicide detective. While Tibbs is anxious to get out of Sparta as quickly as possible and Gillespie is none too keen to have an outsider taking control of the investigation, the two find themselves thrown together thanks in no small part to the insistence of the victim's widow (Lee Grant), who sees Tibbs as the lone figure of competence in a corrupt precinct that wishes nothing more than to "solve" the crime as quickly as possible, even if it means that the wrong man ends up behind bars.
Though reluctant partners, Tibbs and Gillespie eventually come to develop a mutual respect for each other as they work the case and deal with hostility from the townspeople, including plantation owner Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), recipient of arguably the most famous slap in cinema history, Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James), the diner server who takes bizarre delight in screwing with Wood whenever he stops in during his night shift, and Lloyd Purdy (James Patterson), a local who will eventually gather a mob to come after Tibbs. However, as bonded as Tibbs and Gillespie become, they butt heads again when Gillespie starts to believe that the clues are pointing towards Wood and, for the second time, is ready to call the mission accomplished without having looked at the full picture. Now Tibbs is working to prove Wood's innocence in addition to finding the real killer, but as tensions with the townspeople continue to rise, he's also faced with the increasingly difficult task of making it out of Sparta alive.
Adapted by Stirling Silliphant from the novel of the same name by John Ball, In the Heat of the Night puts the issue of racial tensions right at the center of the narrative, rendering the murder mystery an almost secondary concern which serves to provide the framework for the film's exploration of social themes. While the film isn't really subtle in the way it goes about establishing Sparta as a hotbed of racial intolerance and oppression stretching back generations - from the way that every white person in town, save the murder victim's wife, expresses an immediate and intense hostility to Tibbs, to the lingering shots of Endicott's plantation where black townspeople continue to toil picking cotton, the film does everything it can to keep the issue of race in the foreground of every scene - it is nevertheless interesting for the way that it shows how fragile prejudice really is. Gillespie, Wood, and others all have a knee-jerk suspicion and dislike of Tibbs when they first meet him, treating him with disdain and doing what they can to cut him down and assert their assumed superiority, but it really takes very little for some of them to come around to seeing Tibbs as a human being and developing some degree of respect for him (by the time Wood is arrested he sees Tibbs as, perhaps not a "friend" exactly, but certainly not an enemy, and trusts him implicitly to clear his name). The hatred that, at first, seemed rock solid and eternal is broken by the simple act of getting to know him and while it can be argued that they never see "past" Tibbs' race, they certainly come to see him as more than someone who is different from them, and therefore scary. Whatever else it may be, In the Heat of the Night is a story about how a few white men, and in particular Gillespie, find their assumptions challenged and find themselves at a crossroads where they can either keep on as they always have or they can recognize that not only is the social tide changing, but that it should change and they with it. The moment when Tibbs slaps Endicott is one of the film's two most memorable moments (the other being Poitier's line, "They call me Mister Tibbs!") and certainly it's most powerful, but what happens next is equally powerful. Endicott turns to Gillespie and points out what Tibbs has done and asks what he's going to do about it. Gillespie mulls it over for half a second then says, "I don't know." He's standing at the precipice of change and he knows it, but he hasn't quite decided whether he's capable of making the leap. By the end of the film, there's no question left - he's done it.
In the Heat of the Night would be nominated for seven Oscars and win five. Though it has become iconic (and served as the basis for two sequels), Poitier's performance as Tibbs was not recognized by AMPAS, while Steiger not only received a nomination but was awarded the Best Actor prize. On the face of it, this fact would seem to lend credence to the notion that In the Heat of the Night was typical "Hollywood deals with issues" fare, the kind of film that the conservative Academy could embrace because it was a story about oppressed/persecuted members of society that nevertheless allowed them the opportunity to reward a bunch of white men, but as great as Poitier's performance is, if you could only nominate one between him and Steiger (and given the competition that year, which included Warren Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde, Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate, Paul Newman for Cool Hand Luke, and Spencer Tracy for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it's difficult to imagine how both could have gotten into the Best Actor pool), Steiger is the better choice. Poitier gets to be strong and resilient but, at the end of the day, Tibbs is the same man at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. He didn't need to change, so he didn't. Gillespie, on the other hand, goes through a massive change and Steiger guides him through it with subtlety and grace. This is a surprisingly quiet performance from Steiger given not only the volatile nature of the story but also the archetype of the "Southern sheriff," and it's deeply effective and affecting. When they come to the end of their case and Tibbs finally gets to board his train, Gillespie's final words, uttered simply and with warmth, say it all: the world isn't going to change all at once overnight, but it can be changed one person at a time.