It’s the middle of the night in the middle-1960s, and a handsome black stranger materializes in some backwater on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line right around the time a wealthy white industrialist is murdered. The scene seems set for a drama in which the undereducated but quietly noble negro escapes being chewed up in the wheels of injustice with the help of, say, a crusading white lawyer charged with the task of convincing the townsfolk to look past their racist presumptions. But In the Heat of the Night (1967), based on the first of John Ball’s Virgil Tibbs novels, does something much more interesting: it makes the black stranger a well-paid, nattily dressed homicide detective from Philly whose innocence is swiftly established and who winds up cracking the case the local crackers couldn’t. It was an ingenious reversal of expectations, with Mister Tibbs elegantly embodied by Sidney Poitier, probably the only actor who could have pulled it off. The film is screening at Edmonton's Metro Cinema this weekend, following Poitier’s Thursday night speaking engagement at the Jube.
It is no slight to say that In the Heat of the Night—one of Canadian director Norman Jewison’s earliest feature credits and still among his best—plays out like a very good cop show elevated by sociological innovation. (That’s why the film was eventually made into a cop show.) The murder mystery is something of a MacGuffin, making room for richer themes of tolerance, respect, professionalism, alpha-male competitiveness and the painfully protracted spread of the Civil Rights Movement. We keep watching not so much to find out whodunnit as to see how the unflappable Tibbs will finally find his way out of Sparta, Mississippi and make something like peace with its ornery, lonesome police chief Bill Gillespie. Gillespie’s played by Rod Steiger, who chews gum as a way to hold off from chewing up all the scenery—mastication keeps Steiger from shouting all the time, though this too becomes overly indicative and irritating in its way. Steiger won an Oscar for this part, despite the fact that Poitier’s cool approach—not to mention that of Warren Oates as a bumbling patrolman—seems to offer such a seductive, more intriguing alternative to Steiger’s bullishness in nearly every scene.
Historical significance and varying performance styles aside, I think that much of what keeps In the Heat of the Night fresh and worthy of repeat visits has to do with the many wonderful details that pepper the film: the plastic Jesus on Oates’ dashboard; the Dr. Pepper sliding between a young woman’s ample breasts as she lingers naked by her kitchen window; the masking tape repairs on an old vinyl-upholstered chair; or the positioning of the corpse discovered on a Sparta side street. The dead man lays on the ground like he was in middle of trying out a new dance—let’s call it the doggie paddle. There’s also sensitive editing from future director Hal Ashby, inventive shooting from Haskell Wexler, scoring from Quincy Jones, and a title tune sung by Ray Charles, an especially inspired choice to ease us into the picture. If Charles couldn’t get Americans of every colour to root for a black hero, no one could.