1967

Film #215: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

We continue our Sidney Poitier retrospective by jumping forward four years to a ceremony in which the actor found himself starring in two Best Picture nominees. Oddly, Poitier didn’t find himself nominated for either film but his co-stars in the two films did pick up the awards for Best Actor and Best Actress.

We start with In the Heat of the Night which not only won the Best Actor Award for its star Rod Steiger but also took home that year’s Best Picture honours. The film sees Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs hauled to the police station in Sparta, Mississippi as he charged with a killing man he never met. When Steiger’s racist Police Chief Bill Gillespie encounters Tibbs he’s embarrassed to learn that he himself is a homicide detective. To avoid further embarrassment, Gillespie keeps Tibbs around to help him solve the murder case. As Tibbs’ targets the wealthiest man in Sparta he soon his confronted by a mob who threaten his life and he is advised by Gillespie to leave the town however a defiant Tibbs refuses until he’s solved the murder. Tibbs is able to link the crime to the pregnancy of a local teenager who police officer Sam Wood had taken a liking to and after a conversation with the local backstreet abortionist he is able to track down his man. However will it be too late for Tibbs who has angered even more of Sparta’s residents during his investigation.

In the Heat of the Night is an excellent film showing racial prejudice at its most extreme with the scenes in which Tibbs is hunted down by a mob being very shocking indeed. But director Norman Jewison is keen to point out Tibbs’ own prejudice as he believes that many members of the Sparta police department are stupid. Poitier’s performance as the educated black man is completely different from his previous roles in both Lilies of the Field and The Defiant Ones. But whilst Poitier gives a solid turn as the film’s moral backbone, Oscar winner Rod Steiger is the definite star of the show. Steiger portrays Gillespie as an initially prejudiced character who gradually learns to be tolerant as he spends more time with Tibbs. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is also brilliant throughout as he makes the action-packed scenes feel all the more compelling. Additionally it’s interesting to point out that Wexler made history by being the first cinematographer to properly light a black actor during a feature length film. One question I do have about In the Heat of the Night is if it deserved its Best Picture win. Although it did contain two brilliant performances and a decent central mystery nothing about it was particularly outstanding. While I make my judgement on that after I’ve watched all five nominees I still feel that In the Heat of the Night had a lot to offer most notably the message about never judging a book by its cover.

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