“They call me Mr. Tibbs!” : In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison – 1967)

1967 was a pretty stellar year for the movies. Anne Bancroft drew Dustin Hoffman into all sorts of trouble in The Graduate,  Paul Newman ate fifty hard boiled eggs and stuck it to ‘the Man’ in Cool Hand Luke, Beatty and Dunaway made multiple withdrawals as Bonnie and Clyde and a little chap called Mowgli, raised by wolves, befriended a bear and a panther in a jungle somewhere. Sexuality, the prison system, bank robberies and prickly pears made for a wide array of subjects for the film-going public that year. However, it was Toronto-born director Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night that cut through to the raging issues of the time – racism and the struggle for equality at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the land of the free and the home of the brave.     

A train arrives late at night in Sparta, Mississippi – a small southern town with very Southern values. An influential entrepreneur is found murdered in the street. The only man to step off that train is presumed guilty until quickly proven innocent. Not questioned, or even spoken to, prior to his arrest, the clear inference is that his “blackness” is reason enough. The wealthy white victim was building a new factory vital to employing the townsfolk and his widow will not proceed until the culprit is apprehended.  Neither man is local to Sparta, or even the South, but they hold its fate in their hands. Jewison’s film is a compelling murder mystery which changes course as frequently as the great river on which it sits and the director handles its sensitive themes, and the blurred lines between what is black and white, with grace and an unlikely humour.  

The man on the train is Virgil Tibbs, himself a police officer from Philadelphia, played with the fervour, composure and command that one would expect from the great, and pioneering, Sidney Poitier. Such was the kryptonite quality of the “black” subject matter, the Mirish production corporation provided Jewison with just a little over $2.5 million to make his picture – roughly half the average production cost at the time. Fears over the the film’s commercial and critical potential would prove to be unfounded as it won 5 Oscars, including best film. Take that, Mirish. 

Poitier’s counterpoint is Rod Steiger who plays gum-chewing, orange sunglass-wearing, backwards and bigoted Chief of Police, Gillespie – based upon the infamous Bull Connor. The relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie is not a case of good cop/bad cop but more of opposites attracting. For all the calm of speech and gesture exuded by Poitier, Steiger is a force of nature, bellowing and blustering through like a tornado.  Despite an inauspicious beginning, their unlikely alliance evolves through a learned mutual respect and belief in doing the right thing. Each performance is top-drawer. 

Part of the genius of Stirling Silliphant’s big screen adaptation of the novel by John Ball is that prejudice and humiliation do not only flow one way. Shortly after arriving at the local police station, Virgil is at last given the opportunity to state his purpose for being in Sparta as well as his profession. Demonstrations of such stupidity by the town’s finest, under the illusion of superiority, are moments of derision which balance the previous disrespect shown to the hero of the piece. Virgil earns a greater salary and in speaking with his own superior says, “No, sir, I’m not prejudiced”. This ironical remark refers to his greater experience and knowledge as a murder detective and having to slum it with small town folk who don’t seem to know their a*se from their elbow. It doesn’t take Gillespie long to see that he needs Virgil more than he initially thought.

The issue of race is prominent but the divide of the Mason-Dixon line is another layer of the cake. The affinity between the widowed Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant, who makes very good use of limited screen time) and Virgil comes as a result of a shared northern liberalism, intellect and professionalism which could not be further removed from the ignorance of those they find in Sparta: “What kind of place is this?” exclaims Colbert, left disbelieving at the police’s ineptitude after another blunder. 

The modern industry brought to the town by the Colberts would employ an equal number of whites and blacks and contrasts the traditions of the Endicott Cotton Company – the “fat cat” on the plantation that Virgil wants to bring down. The times they were a-changing, and the deep-rooted ideals of many would have to change with them.

As with all good whodunits the guilty party reveals his/her ugly face in the closing minutes – a sequence which for me is a little rushed and anticlimactic given the build up to it. This should not take the gloss of what is a very fine piece of cinema, though. 

It is nearly 50 years since Jewison’s incisive film cleaned up at the Oscars. Like any true piece of art or social commentary, In the Heat of the Night was not confined to the specific moment in history in which it was made. An idealist would hope that the world, and the good ol’ US of A in particular, had progressed in the half century following it. Electing the first African-American President was a landmark step in the right direction, as was his second term, but the front page of newspapers still carry stories of white police officers gunning down unarmed black men. The intriguing twists and turns of of the tale told by Jewison are timeless; on one level it is a very engaging human story but it is sad to say that the prejudices, “otherness” and bigotry highlighted still remain relevant in contemporary times. 

You can see the film in all its glory at The Bookshelf this Wednesday and Thursday.