Before the moderately successful TV series in the late 80s and early 90s starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins In the Heat of the Night was a blisteringly good film by Norman Jewison.
Not only is it an expertly crafted mystery, but it is one of the most important films about race relations in America ever made.
Based on John Ball’s novel of the same name, In the Heat of the Night stars Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in the fictional small town of Sparta, Mississippi. Tibbs, excuse me… Mr. Tibbs finds himself having to work side-by-side with the white local Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Neither one is happy about the arrangement.
While the murder story is solid, it isn’t really the point of the film. The real story is how these two men from different worlds must work together to solve the murder. In the process both have to deal with their own preconceptions. Both have to face their own prejudices.
The script spares us the hackneyed, southern racist cop or angry northern black man tropes. Instead it gives us layered and well-developed characters. Gillespie is a Police Chief trying to solve a murder in his small town but to do so he needs to ask for the help of a black cop, one from Philadelphia no less. Everyone around him is a hindrance but he presses on even at his own risk.
Chief Gillespie, relentless gum-chewing and all, might not be the most progressively-minded man but I would say he more exhibits racism rather than he is a racist. The difference is subtle but greatly appreciated. It makes his struggle more relatable to those who aren’t flat out racists. It even transcends the issue of race to encompass dealing with anyone who looks, thinks or acts differently than you.
Gillespie, like Sparta, is stuck in between two eras. There’s a new factory coming to town but at the same time there are still blacks in the field picking cotton. Those two worlds are at odds and some are more determined than others to hold onto the ways of the past.
The film and the story were a turning point for civil rights in America. It’s tragically ironic that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just four days before the Oscars. The Academy delayed the ceremony until April 10, 1967.
Gregory Peck, the Academy President at the time, opened the Oscars ceremony with the following remarks.
This has been a fateful week in the history of our nation. We join with fellow members of our profession and men of goodwill everywhere in paying our profound respects to the memory Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was his work and his dedication that brought about the increasing awareness of all men that we must unite in compassion in order to survive.
The lasting memorial that we of the motion picture community can build to Dr. King is to continue making films which celebrate the dignity of man whatever his race or color or creed.
In his acceptance speech for best actor Rod Steiger said,
I would like to thank Mr. Sidney Poitier for the pleasure of his friendship which gave me the knowledge and understanding of prejudice in order to enhance this performance. Thank you and we shall overcome.
Not only was In the Heat of the Night up for best picture but one of Poitier’s other films that year, the more commercially successful Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was also nominated. That film presented a positive representation of interracial marriage, a controversial subject at the time. Historically interracial marriage had been illegal in most states of the country, and even just six months prior to the films released there were 17 states where it still was.
It was a turning point for filmmaking in America as well.
In the Heat of the Night broke many of the “rules” of mainstream movie making. It contains by far the most provocative shot in a best picture winner yet. Officer Sam Woods stops outside a widow in the patrol car to watch a woman in her kitchen drinking a Coke on a hot, humid evening. She is barely covered but obviously naked. The framing of the shot stops short of actual nudity.
It represents the continuation in 1960s filmmaking to more realistic views of people and the lives they live. This doesn’t just result in suggestive scenes and salty language but without an authentic picture of the world around us you could never make a film like In the Heat of the Night that truly addressed race relations. It would have been too sanitized and neutered to have any kind of power.
Even the music brought a sense of realism to the film. It’s so deliberate and so different than other films. It eschews the more traditional orchestral score for a mix of R&B singles and a jazzy, contemporary score by Quincy Jones.
It brings you into the moment. The same is true with the direction. Especially the use of close-up camera work as Tibbs uses his hands to inspect the dead body. Phenomenal. It’s too bad that Norman Jewison didn’t win for best director. He lost to Mike Nichols for The Graduate which is still the only film to win best director and nothing else.
But there was no shortage of Oscar love for In the Heat of the Night. Even though Bonnie and Clyde and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner led the pack with 10 nominations, it was Heat that took home the most awards (5) including screenplay and best actor for Steiger.
Steiger beat out quite a list of luminaries, or at least future luminaries: Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman and Spencer Tracy, who was nominated posthumously. But as great as those guys were, Steiger’s performance was head and shoulders above the competition.
Speaking of future luminaries, 1967 saw a number of notable film debuts.
Besides Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss, Faye Dunaway, Anthony Hopkins, Anjelica Huston, Harvey Keitel, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight and Gene Wilder all made their first movies that year.
By 1979 four of them had won Oscars. By 1991 another two would win. Harvey Keitel and Gene Wilder also each received acting nominations. Surprisingly Martin Sheen is the odd man out in the cold with the Academy. He’s never even been nominated.