(Directed by Norman Jewison) (1967)
It looks a little dated now: race is still a Great Big American Problem but in an entirely different way – however, In the Heat of the Night still resonates, largely due to efficient direction and some terrific performances. Styled as a thriller, and fairly glib even on that level, the film has flaws (including over-plotting) but works most effectively as a study of chalk-and-cheese relationships, where our tribes become our talismans and we forget how much alike we really are. (A title song performed by Ray Charles helps).
Virgil Tibbs (great name, played by Sidney Poitier), a negro loitering at a train station in Ol’ Miss early in the morning, (in a suit, to boot!) naturally draws the suspicion of a local patrol cop, Sam Wood (Warren Oates). A moneybags has moved into town to establish a factory and Sam finds him in an alley with his head bashed in. And now, look at all that money in Tibb’s wallet!
Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) thinks they’ve got their man, but Tibbs proves he is a homicide detective from Philly – who earns more than Chief Gillespie – and then agrees to lend a hand with the investigation (somewhat begrudgingly; the prejudice on all sides is done well, without ladling too much sauce on the meat). Poitier, so often type-cast as the Ivy-League Magic Negro, is excellent as the taciturn, aggrieved stranger who has depths of knowledge, expertise, and courage that earn him the respect of the local cops. A number of supporting roles add nice colour, including Lee Grant as the murdered man’s widow, Scott Wilson as the poor-white-trash suspect, and Larry Gates as the local patrician who resents Tibbs’ presence (their exchange of slaps is an electrifying moment).
In the final analysis, however, the film belongs to Rod Steiger. A character actor turned leading man who at times could lead his character into a chewing of the scenery, Steiger here, albeit playing a redneck out of the cracker-barrel, is scrupulously restrained in a wonderful performance. As David Shipman wrote: “the scene where he confesses to [Tibbs] his loneliness had some beautifully controlled emotional acting..” and it is to him that much of the success of the piece is due.