[box cover]

In the Heat of the Night

MGM Home Video

Starring Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates,
and Lee Grant

Written by Stirling Silliphant
Directed by Norman Jewison

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Review by Kerry Fall                    

Timing is everything, and for director Norman Jewison, releasing In the Heat of the Night in 1967 proved to be some of the best timing in his career. America was fraught with racial tension, torn by the turmoil of a civil rights revolution. And while on the surface In the Heat of the Night appears to be a fairly straightforward whodunit, at its core lies the struggle between two men, one black and one white, both forced to face their racial prejudices. The movie was a hit and went on to garner five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Rod Steiger, Best Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, Best Sound by Quincy Jones, and Best Film Editing by Hal Ashby.

Years ago, when I first saw In the Heat of the Night, I remember being spellbound by the brashness of the story and the head-on way it dealt with the issue of race. When Sidney Poitier's character slaps the local rich white landowner, I remember gasps from the audience. It was the kind of emotionally moving film that you talked about for days afterwards.

But that was then and this is now — and again, timing is everything. 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 (the acting is often superb and never less than solid from all the actors across the board). It's that the movie feels old and tired. The cinematic style is flat and dated, the pacing (meant to be thoughtful) is plodding, and the murder mystery just isn't tight enough. When the film moves from the dark intimate settings that foster the personal relationships between characters to the bright, music-drenched daytime exteriors, the effect is jarring, and the movie loses its thread. These weaknesses were overshadowed in 1967 by the compelling racial dimensions of the picture, but they are too hard to ignore today — it lacks punch, 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 (for what the film Don't be a Menace would call "being black on a Friday night") and hauls him in front of the gum-chewing, overweight, blow-hard sheriff, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger). The officers soon discover that Virgil ("they call me Mr.") Tibbs is top cop in the Philadelphia homicide department. (Poitier went on to reprise the role of Tibbs in two subsequent films, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!, 1970, and The Organization, 1971).

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. "You're so damn smart!," he accusses the big city cop. "You're smarter than any white man. You're just going to stay here and show us all. You got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame.... I don't think you could let an opportunity like that pass by." And Gillespie is right — Tibbs can't help but seize the opportunity to show up this bunch of bumbling crackers. As Gillespie and Tibbs reluctantly team up to solve the crime, each learns the other's strengths and weaknesses while facing their own deep-seated prejudices. Through their vast differences, they recognize a commonality in their lonely lives as cops. As Jewison puts it, these men are "great and lonely gunslingers." 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. The murder plot seems an aside (though Jewison claims otherwise in the audio commentary) to the main focus of the film — the interaction of Gillespie and Tibbs as they dance around each other's perceptions of life and humanity. (The brilliant editing of Hal Ashby provides does some subtle work here, particularly in making the most of reaction shots to help emphasize that this is a film more about what is not said.)

With MGM's DVD edition, In the Heat of the Night is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and looks clean and sharp, with well-saturated blacks and blues, although the original mono audio (in Dolby 2.0) leaves much to be desired. I found the audio commentary particularly disappointing, with director Jewison giving a shallow rehash of the film along with bits of obvious philosophizing. (One point of interest to contemplate — Jewison originally considered George C. Scott for the role of Gillespie.) Cinematographer Haskell Wexler provides a basic lighting lesson. Rod Steiger (recorded separately) contradicts many of Jewison's assertions, but he does manage to give a little insight into his portrayal of Gillespie. Finally, Lee Grant states the obvious about her small role. Most annoying is the behind-the-scenes gossip Jewison feels necessary to impart about the cast and crew fooling around with the "local girls" (as if this something new for a film crew in a small town? Who cares?) It's all very dull and not very informative, and it goes to show that a lot of people should listen to some of the better audio commentaries on DVD before sitting for theirs.

— Kerry Fall

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