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In the Heat of the Night

When Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night debuted in 1967 it became a popular hit and multiple Oscar winner, fundamentally because of the head-on way it dealt with the issue of race, particularly as America was in the midst of a civil rights revolution. But that was then and this is now — some films withstand the test of time, while others that are so sensational when released can lose their impact over the years. Sadly, In the Heat of the Night falls into the latter category. It's not that the race issue is any less important, or that the performances aren't outstanding. It's that the movie feels old and tired, and we've seen this kind of murder thriller done so much better, and so many times since then. Based on a John Ball novel, In the Heat of the Night is set in the small town of Sparta, Miss., where on one hot summer night, Sheriff's Deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates) discovers the body of a murdered wealthy industrialist. As he combs the town for suspects, Wood finds a well-dressed black stranger, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), at the depot waiting to catch the next train out of town. Wood arrests Tibbs and hauls him in front of the gum-chewing, overweight, blow-hard sheriff, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger). The officers soon discover that Virgil Tibbs is top cop in the Philadelphia homicide department, and reluctantly, Gillespie asks Tibbs to stay on and help solve the murder. But before long the sheriff seizes on the hubris that is Tibbs' Achilles heel, because Tibbs can't help but seize the opportunity to show up this bunch of bumbling crackers. The strongest parts of In the Heat of the Night come from Gillespie and Tibbs, who are forced to learn the other's strengths and weaknesses while facing their own deep-seated prejudices. But the murder mystery, which forms the film's second dimension, is both unconvincingly convoluted and unnecessarily complicated, and it is perhaps too frequently interjected with incidences of Tibbs being harassed by the local rednecks. MGM's DVD edition of In the Heat of the Night offers a clean anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, although the original mono audio (in Dolby 2.0) leaves much to be desired. Also included is a commentary track featuring director Jewison, Steiger, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and actress Lee Grant. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Kerry Fall

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