In the Heat of the Night
Sixties Classic on Blu-ray
Often overlooked in film history, Norman Jewison was a director who emerged after the old Hollywood studio system that nurtured Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford but before the generation that numbered Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Jewison had his peaks and valleys, but in the late 1960s traveled a high plateau with the Cold War comedy The Russians are Coming (1966), the racial drama In the Heat of the Night (1967) and the ennui-suffused crime caper The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
Out now on Blu-ray, the multiple Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night stars Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Northern big-city homicide detective caught up in a small-town Mississippi murder case. Rod Steiger plays against him as Gillespie, the bigoted local police chief for whom a black police detective is a notion hard to comprehend. Thrown together by circumstance and political intrigue, Tibbs and Gillespie are a reluctant salt-and-pepper team on the trail of a killer. As the story begins, one of Gillespie's officers arrests Tibbs for the crime, assuming a well-dressed black man with money in his wallet must be up to no good. After Tibbs confirms his identity, the local cops bring in another wrong man, a white no-account, but Tibbs thwarts the confession they plan to beat out of him by showing that he couldn't possibly be the killer.
Although confronted at every turn by the endemic, unthinking racism of Mississippi, Tibbs is played by Poitier plays as cool under pressure—his sullen anger a source of power. Gillespie is a rancorous man who gradually comes to respect Tibbs’ induction and doggedness. While many townsfolk want to see Tibbs dead, Gillespie becomes his reluctant protector, whether from residual reasonableness or his own irritation at the status quo.
In the Heat of the Night has many strengths, including memorable dialogue, gorgeous cinematography that endows even a dank jail cell with beauty, striking visual composition, outstanding performances, a bluesy score by Quincy Jones (with Ray Charles singing the title number) and a compelling story that never sags. A film with a message but no mere message movie, In the Heat of the Night is a vivid evocation of a time and place.