In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In the Heat of the Night (1967), directed by Norman Jewison.

When a northern industrialist is murdered in a small Mississippi town, a black homicide detective from Philadelphia -- just passing through -- is shanghaied into investigating the crime. He didn't volunteer and no one wants him there, apart from the dead man's wife, who recognizes a real policeman when she sees one. She gets what she wants, but quiet, polite, very smart Virgil Tibbs is going to rub a lot of white people the wrong way before it's over.

The director said he was trying to balance the Message against the dramatic needs of the murder mystery, a story that should be able to stand on its own. That sort of works, but the mystery is not that complex, and the obstacles to its solution all involve racism, so the Message tends to dominate.

This was made when things were happening. It had an electric effect on audiences at the time.

Poitier plays Tibbs as extra-reserved, which is quite sensible given the hostile, even murderous environment And yet, is the sheriff entirely wrong when he rants:


You're so damn smart. You're smarter than any white man. You're just gonna stay here and show us all. You've got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don't think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.

Rod Steiger does something great with his role: big-bellied racist southern sheriff is a cliché, but as we come to know him we see a lonely man who is also something of a new breed, unwanted by his town and not behaving as expected.

Similarly, we are in no mood to like the rich man, but after he is slapped we see his tears of frustration and humiliation, things anyone could feel.


Available on Blu-ray with an edited commentary track by the director, cinematographer, Rod Steiger and Lee Grant.