When wealthy businessman Phillip Colbert is found dead by a patrolling policeman in Sparta, Mississippi, Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) immediately assumes that the African American found loitering at the train station with excess cash in his wallet is the prime suspect, and his chief, Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is inclined to agree. That is until they discover the man, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), is an acclaimed and learned homicide detective from Philadelphia, who had been waiting for a connecting train after visiting his mother. After being prejudiced against and treated poorly, Tibbs wants nothing more than to catch his train and head home, but his own captain insists he stay and, when Colbert’s widow (Lee Grant) makes the same demand after Tibbs shows more detective skills than the Sparta force, Tibbs and Gillespie have no choice but to work together until the case is solved.In The Heat Of The Night is my Blind Spot pick for February, and is pretty much the perfect film I could have watched because not only did it win Best Picture at the Oscars in 1968 (as well as a few others we’ll get into shortly), but also because February is Black History Month over in America, and this film deals heavily with racism. It’d only be more perfect if there were a heavier romance angle to the film too, to coincide with Valentine’s Day, but Oscar wins and racism will have to do, I suppose. And the racism in the film isn’t overplayed. It’s extreme to say the least, culminating in an angry mob out for Tibbs’ blood for the joint crimes of slapping a man who slapped him first and being present in a room during a conversation, all whilst being black, of course, but it remains believable. Sickening, yes, but not over the top as might have been done with a heavier hand. There are also different degrees of racism on show, and different perspectives, which is what makes the film so interesting. For starters there’s Sam Wood, the officer who arrests Tibbs. Wood’s initial response to seeing Tibbs minding his own business at the train station is “On your feet, boy!” before having his hands planted against the wall, frisking and immediately installing Tibbs in the back of his police car and haul him down to the station, already referring to him as “The Prisoner” despite the meagre “evidence” available. Wood’s smug, self-satisfied grin when he tells Gillespie he’s got his man tells you everything you need to know about what he thinks of this newcomer. Gillespie on the other hand is similarly prejudiced as Wood, although to a slightly lesser extent, but his position of seniority requires him to not show it quite so blatantly. Gillespie, upon finding out Tibbs’ profession and abilities, more willing to accept the man’s help than the other way around, because he also has a responsibility to see justice done, yet his veneer cracks when Tibbs’ interference points out errors within Gillespie’s work. And of course Tibbs himself has a degree of racism to him too. He is far more eager to take on the case when his detective work leads him to racist plantation owner Endicott (Larry Gates), with Tibbs’ desires to send this man down blinding him to the truth.
The acting performances are all terrific too, particularly Poitier and Steiger, though my mind has never been boggled quite as much as when I discovered yesterday – and this happened during a podcast, so my reaction has been documented – that whilst this film won the Best Lead Actor Oscar, that award went to Steiger and not Poitier. I’ll admit that Steiger is great here, and his depiction of a racist police captain learning to acknowledge and respect an African American officer is flawless, but this should have been Poitier’s nomination (and, in my opinion, subsequent loss to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, but that’s a different matter). I suppose it could be argues that Steiger shows a greater range and is perhaps a showier role, but Poitier’s internal rage and the manner in which he handles his situations makes this nomination seem like a dreadful snub, and continues the case for the Academy’s racism.
Aside from the racial issues and acting performances, where this film sets itself apart from other detective stories is with the supporting cast of colourful characters, who all add flavour to the world, right down to the relatively small roles like the crime scene photographer who has never shot a dead body before and earnestly demands compensation for his copies, and Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean), a 16-year old girl who, as one suspect describes it, is “Real proud of what nature done for her, y’know?” By this he means she parades around her home at night wearing no clothes and with the curtains wide open for all the world to see, with the window frames conveniently covering her nipples for the camera. Oh, and the character of Harvey Oberst, the man arrested for stealing Colbert’s wallet, is played by Scott Wilson, who went on to play Hershel, one of my favourite characters on The Walking Dead. There’s some great dialogue here too, not just that nature line – which I loved. Of course there’s Tibbs’ infamous response of “They call me MISTER Tibbs!” to the question “What do they call you in Philadelphia?” and I’m all quite fond of Steiger delivery late in the film, when Tibbs once again knocks down Gillespie’s theory, provoking the response “I got the motive which is money, and the body which is dead.”
The only hole the story falls into is the overall whodunnit aspect, but at worst it’s a stumble more than a full-on trip. I’m the kind of guy who likes to guess and predict the outcome of films, but here on the first viewing I think that would have been nigh on impossible to put all the pieces together as several aren’t revealed until the last scene. In fact it seemed Tibbs himself was waiting to see who would show up instead of having the requisite detecting ability to predict it, but fine.
Choose Film 9/10