IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)

in-the-heat-of-the-night-movie-poster-1967-1020144145On April 4, 1968, America experienced a truly dark day, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. His murder was so shocking and disruptive to life in the nation that, among other things, it led to the postponement of the Academy Awards. A few evenings later, when the show did go on, the big winner of the night was In The Heat Of The Night, which won five awards, including Best Picture.

In the Heat of the Night is a murder mystery set in Sparta, a fictional town somewhere in Mississippi. Police chief Gillespie heads the investigation and one of his officers (all of whom are white) has soon taken Virgil Tibbs, a black man traveling through town, into custody for the crime, an arrest obviously biased by race. The flimsiness of Tibbs’ arrest becomes all the more apparent when Gillespie learns that Tibbs, aside from obviously being innocent of the crime, is a respected and knowledgeable homicide detective in Philadelphia – whose talents his superiors in Philly have now offered to the Sparta police in their investigation.

The film is beautifully shot – the opening sequence is essentially a ride through Sparta with one of the police officers. It introduces the viewer to the town, set against music composed by legendary Quincy Jones (and with the inclusion of Ray Charles’ “In the Heat of the Night” to kick things off). We immediately get a sense of the town’s quiet yet seething rage, and the uncertain footing on which race relations stand. This is crystallized in some of the initial interactions between Tibbs and the residents.

At the core of the film is the fascinating relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie. Clearly, Gillespie can recognize within minutes Tibbs’ talent and ability. While he is deeply imbued in a racially stratified culture, at his core he is a cop – and he recognizes the professional acumen Tibbs possesses. The two are so on guard with one another, consistently sizing one another up. As I watched their terse exchange, I remarked that I was glad I had been socialized female – for at its core, this film is also very much about masculinity – its performance, its trappings and its shortcomings. In fact, I think it may be one of the greatest films addressing race and masculinity that I’ve ever seen – in no small part due to the nuanced and stellar interpretations of Sidney Poitier (Tibbs) and Rod Steiger (Gillespie).

This movie has a tandem of great performances. Steiger (whom we last saw in On The Waterfront)  took home the award for Best Actor, and I can see why. Poitier, for his part, is no slouch here. But Steiger’s character is the more dynamic. Gillespie would probably be considered a racist by the standards of anyone reading this blog, yet he isn’t a cross-burning heel either. We see him as a product of his environment, doing his best to fulfill his moral and professional obligations. His conflicted, often downright frustrated nature comes through in Steiger’s performance. He grapples with his ego and his prejudices throughout. But, yeah, this is just one of two great leading performances in this movie, to say nothing of some excellent supporting parts.  I’d watch this if only to see the scene where Tibbs questions Endicott, a man more like a plantation owner from Antebellum times than anything in modern America.

I agree, the look of this film is great. At times like this I really wish I had a more articulate understanding of the technical aspects of film, but there is an unmistakably modern feel to it. The very first thing we see are several globes of light which gradually come into focus, revealing themselves to be the lights of a train in the night- foreshadowing the process of solving the mystery central to the story. Often, scenes begin not with an establishing shot, but with a close-up of some detail- a knife being used to jimmy the jukebox, a pair of man’s legs walking into a train station- underscoring the feeling of dramatic uncertainty. Cinematography was by Haskell Wexler, who had a background in documentary film and shooting was done on location in a real town.

Cinematography wasn’t a category the film was nominated in, nor were there any nominations for the music, for song or score. This seems like a bit of a snub to me because I think Jones’ music really made the movie at times. Perhaps the Academy was inclined to go conservative in this category. Rather than a more traditional orchestral score, In the Heat of the Night’s music draws from sounds more fitting to the time and place, like old R&B and blues. I’d love to know what the process was behind the nominations.

In the Heat of the Night was the first movie from the detective genre to win Best Picture. Like most good mystery stories, the investigation reveals not just the details of the crime, but the circumstances of the characters. Colbert, the dead man, was an investor from out of town whose planned business carries the possibility of changing the town’s existing racial caste system. There are clues, red herrings and various suspects as the plot moves toward revelation.

And I didn’t even catch him while I watched, but Harry Dean Stanton is credited as one of the cops. Is there anything this man touches that doesn’t turn to gold?

After we watched the movie in full, I was so mesmerized and curious for more of a toehold into the creative process that I sat and watched the entire film AGAIN with the directors’ commentary. And it wasn’t just the director’s – there were four people speaking about the creative process, including a woman who had made a documentary about Sidney Poitier’s life. They offered so many interesting insights – for example, Poitier made a key adjustment to one scene in which he is slapped by Endicott. Initially he was just to take the slapping, but Poitier insisted that Tibbs, his character, respond by slapping the bigot back. As Mouse said, this scene is startling, given the discriminatory context. Immediately we see Gillespie get caught up in the fray – by not arresting or attacking Tibbs on the spot, he is seen as a sympathizer. The risk in the town for the two men rises, and the pressure is on to get to the bottom of the murder.

At their core, the two men have much in common – and deeply share a passionate commitment to their work and to uncovering the truth. Tibbs, however, has a greater ability to do so and more experience with these kinds of crimes. Gillespie listens to him and watches his moves with what you can tell is genuine respect and regard. Because of the pressures and trappings of masculinity, and racialized masculinity at that, he has to cover it up quite a bit. There is a tender scene between the two men in Gillespie’s apartment where shared vulnerability is hinted at – until Gillespie gets angry and the exchange becomes more curt.

There are themes of pride, shame, opportunity, class, power, and race throughout the film. In many ways, Tibbs has a lot of advantages over some of the whites who hate him because of the color of his skin. He faces derision for being an educated professional from the North – he has stepped out of line from what many of these men expect of blacks, and their behavior is meant to police him because of this. Their actions, though, say a lot more about them than they do about Tibbs, and his quiet grace amplifies their weaknesses.

I called my father shortly after watching this to tell him and my mother about the film – but I was preaching to the choir. He delighted me by letting me know In the Heat of the Night is one of his favorite films of all time, and shared my appreciation for the characters, plot, and representation of race and masculinity. This film, released in a country unsure of its footing with civil rights, truly had a social purpose. It’s exciting to see and makes me hunger for more films that wrestle with notions of social change and progress.

It was a pretty stacked field in the Best Picture category at the 40th Academy Awards. Bonnie and Clyde and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were both forward-looking in their own ways. The first for its graphic violence and moral ambiguity, the second (also with Poitier) for its positive portrayal of an interracial relationship. The Graduate was on the list as well, and would definitely have gotten my vote as the greatest artistic achievement of the year (and probably the decade). And then there was Doctor Doolittle. Not a commercial success, nor a favorite of critics, it was nominated supposedly as a result of intensive lobbying by the studio. It must have seemed like quite a coup to the people at 20th Century Fox to have snagged Doolittle a Best Picture nomination. But in retrospect, forcing it to stand next to its groundbreaking competitors makes it look like a tired living fossil, like the guys who showed up to play with spandex and hairspray the year Nirvana hit it big.

This film served as an indisputable testament to the human spirit, to connecting across difference, and to the painful trappings of race, class and gender.I can’t stop thinking about it even now, days later. When I was in 8th grade, our class watched the film Glory. It moved me similarly, and I can’t help but draw comparisons between the compelling portrayals delivered by Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier. Art is a lens through which to learn and share across boundary and difference – and brilliant actors like these two men have moved hearts and minds for decades. I feel grateful for them.

 Also nominated in 1967:
Bonnie and Clyde
Doctor Doolittle
The Graduate
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Next film: GOING MY WAY (1944)

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One Response to “IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)”

  1. cdascher Says:

    When we posted this, I commented on how much I liked the film’s use of details to open scenes rather than wider establishing shots. I’ve realized how much this owes to the technique of Hitchcock. In fact, the opening where we only see Virgil’s legs walking off the train is straight out of the beginning of 39 Steps.

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