The 1967 in Film Blogathon Presents: Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night”
“They call me Mister Tibbs.”
Of the many U.S. films that were released in 1967, four movies demand attention as harbingers of change in the world of Hollywood cinema. Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (covered today by Girls Do Film and Stardust: My Classic Film Fantasies) showed that a young leading man (Warren Beatty) could successfully produce and star in an edgy, innovative, and ultimately classic outlaw movie based on a script by (then) first-time screenwriters — David Newman and Robert Benton — despite an almost complete lack of interest from the major Hollywood studios. For “The Graduate” (covered Sunday by Destroy All Fanboys), director Mike Nichols cast a then-obscure actor — Dustin Hoffman, who was considered by many nay-sayers of the day to be too neurotic, awkward, and plain-looking to be a Hollywood star — as his leading man, opposite well-known leading actress Anne Bancroft, in an equally edgy film that critiqued the southern California culture of the time, breaking boundaries in the process. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” director Stanley Kramer managed to pull off both an on-screen reunion of Kathleen Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (which would prove to be Tracy’s last movie) and make a film about interracial marriage that was somewhat edgy at the time (although it was superseded in relevance by real-life events in the civil rights movement by the time it was released). It starred Sir Sidney Poiter, KBE, who also played the protagonist (although he did not receive top billing, which went to Rod Steiger) in Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night,” the subject of this review.
Written by screenwriting icon Stirling Silliphant, “In the Heat of the Night” also focused on race relations, this time in the Deep South. Its content and message apparently captured the hearts and minds of MPAA members, as they awarded the noirish, melodramatic mystery-thriller with five Oscars. Producer Walter Mirisch accepted the Academy Award for Best Picture. Leading actor Rod Steiger won Best Actor. Stirling Silliphant picked up an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Hal Ashby’s masterful work on the Moviola won him Best Film Editing honors. The film also received an Oscar for Best Sound. Jewison was nominated for Best Director, but lost out to Nichols, who won the only Oscar associated with “The Graduate.” James Richard was also nominated for his work with the sound effects for “In the Heat of the Night.”
Given the Academy’s accolades, it is instructive to immerse oneself in this film. First, let’s summarize the story-line, as adapted from IMDB. In the heat of the night, a murder takes place in the small, insular, and racist town of Sparta, MIssissippi. Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) finds the body of Philip Colbert (Jack Teter), a wealthy man from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in Sparta, in a downtown alley. At the same time, Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) happens to be passing through town via passenger train after visiting his mother.
Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger) comes under pressure to quickly find the killer. The dragnet he orders sweeps up Tibbs (who, in present-day terms, is arrested for minding his own business in a public place while Black). Gillespie, heavily prejudiced against Blacks, jumps to the conclusion he has his culprit, but is embarrassed to learn that Tibbs is a respected Philadelphia homicide detective. After the racist treatment he receives, Tibbs wants nothing more than to leave as quickly as possible, but his captain recommends that he stay and help.
The victim’s widow (Lee Grant), already frustrated by the ineptitude of the local police, is impressed by Tibbs’ expert ability when he clears another wrongly-accused suspect Gillespie has arrested on flimsy evidence. She threatens to stop construction on the much-needed factory unless Tibbs leads the investigation. Unwilling to accept help but under orders from the town’s mayor, Gillespie talks Tibbs into staying to share his expertise (and unwittingly to play the fall guy if anything goes wrong).
Despite the rocky start to their relationship, the two lawmen come to respect each other as they are forced to work together to solve the crime. Tibbs initially suspects a wealthy, local cotton plantation owner, Endicott (Larry Gates), who had opposed Colbert and his new factory. When Tibbs attempts to interrogate Endicott about Colbert, Endicott slaps him in the face. Tibbs slaps him back. When Gillespie does nothing about it, Endicott sends a gang of redneck hooligans after Tibbs. Gillespie rescues him from them, but orders him to leave town for his own safety. Tibbs refuses to leave until he has solved the case.
Tibbs asks Sam Wood, the officer who discovered the body, to retrace his steps the night of the murder. He and Gillespie accompany Sam on his patrol route, stopping at a diner where the counterman, Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James), refuses to serve Tibbs because he is Black. When Tibbs notices that Sam has deliberately changed his route, Gillespie begins to suspect Sam of the crime. When he discovers that Sam made a sizable deposit into his bank account the day after the murder (which Sam claims is gambling winnings) and Lloyd Purdy (James Patterson), a local man, files charges against Sam for impregnating his 16-year-old sister, Delores (Quentin Dean), Gillespie arrests Sam for the murder, despite Tibbs’ protests. Purdy is insulted that Tibbs, a Black man, was present for his sister’s interrogation about her sexual encounter with Sam. As a result, he decides to gather a lynch mob to get his revenge on Tibbs.
Tibbs is able to clear Sam by finding the original murder scene and pointing out that Sam would not have been able to drive two cars at the same time to dump the body and the victim’s car while continuing on his patrol. Acting on a hunch, he tracks down the local back-room abortionist, Mama Caleba (Beah Richards), who reveals that someone has paid for Delores to have an abortion. When Delores arrives, Tibbs pursues her outside, where he is confronted by the murderer. Purdy’s mob tracks down Tibbs at this moment, and he is being held at gunpoint when he proves to Purdy that it was the murderer, not Sam, who really got Delores pregnant. Purdy attacks the murderer, who kills him in self-defense. The murderer is arrested and confesses to the murder of Colbert, explaining how it happened. His job done, Tibbs finally boards the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio train for home, seen off by a more respectful Gillespie.
To place this movie in its historical context, it is important to mention that the 40th Academy Awards ceremony (1968) was postponed for two days due to the assassination of the civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, which occurred at the height of the unrest caused by the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s. In his book Pictures at a Revolution (see my review), author Mark Harris notes that the Academy initially planned to hold its proceedings as scheduled. It was only due to the social consciousness of the MPAA president, actor Gregory Peck, that a barely respectful pause was observed. Peck realized that not postponing the Oscars ceremony would be an insult to Dr. King and his legacy. Moreover, all Black celebrities (and many of their White supporters) would refuse to attend the ceremony if it went on as planned. Despite this clearheaded approach on Peck’s part, emcee Bob Hope managed to crack some inappropriate jokes during his basically insensitive hosting of the rescheduled program.
Given this context, Harris makes the point that giving the Best Picture Oscar to “In the Heat of the Night” was a compromise on the part of the Academy. On the one hand, it was a self-congratulatory move for Hollywood, which saw itself as more progressive than it actually was at the time. On the other hand, it allowed the Hollywood Old Guard to avoid rewarding movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” for their then-heterodox approach to filmmaking.
Nevertheless, “In the Heat of the Night” deserves consideration on its own merits. It boasts outstanding performances by both Steiger, who had taken an extreme Method approach to his portrayal of Gillespie, and Poitier, who had received a Best Actor Oscar in 1964 for his performance in “Lilies of the Field.” The story in which they figured as erstwhile adversaries was, in fact, somewhat risky to make as a movie. At the time the film was produced, a Hollywood movie could potentially be injured severely at the box office if movie theaters in the South refused to show it. Miraculously, this did not occur, as the film proved to be popular with both White and Black moviegoers in the South, as well as in the rest of the United States. This is especially impressive given that principal photography was done in Sparta, Illinois (rather than in the real-life, unincorporated Mississippi town of the same name), out of a fear of racist attacks on the cast and crew during production.
The progressive nature of this film can be credited not only to Silliphant’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel of the same name, but to Poitier. The film’s famous slap scene, in which Tibbs rapidly returns Endicott’s physical insult, was initially omitted from the film, ostensibly for reasons of fidelity to the novel’s story-line. Poitier lobbied successfully for its reinclusion, leading to the first cinematic portrayal in the U.S. of a Black man responding in kind to a White man’s physical affront, rather than simply tolerating it. Then, there is also the classic line (quoted at the head of this post) that Poitier delivers when Gillespie sarcastically asks him what he is called back in Philadelphia. Finally, Gillespie’s final line, delivered after he bids a fairly brief and formal farewell to Tibbs as he boards his train for home, neatly encapsulates the hope that the film aspired to communicate to its audience: “Virgil? You take care now, y’hear?”
Forty-seven years after its release, “In the Heat of the Night” holds a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes‘ Tomatometer, as well as a 92% audience rating.