The so-called ‘slap heard around the world’ came from director Norman Jewison’s provocative police procedural thriller, In The Heat of the Night (1967) a super-charged melodrama about bigotry and hatred in the new south. For some time, the movies had rather politely avoided any critique of race relations in America. But then along came actor Sidney Poitier – a ‘non-threatening’ portrait of black America to its white counterpart…at least, palpable enough to sell movie tickets. But Poitier’s clout with audiences would prove far more potent and progressive than any of his contemporaries might have at first anticipated; his proudly defiant stance against authority in Blackboard Jungle; standing up to Richard Widmark’s maniacal racist in No Way Out (both made in 1950); fighting the good fight as Union soldier Ra-Ru in the antebellum potboiler, Band of Angels (1957), and, proving ever more than the sidekick opposite heavy hitter Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958).
Poitier’s movie image was to segued into a more congenial/though no less morally forthright custodian of America’s shifting cultural acceptance; first, as the harried caretaker to some progressive-thinking nuns in Lilies of the Field (1963) then, in an updated Goodbye, Mr. Chips school story, administering a firm hand, but kind word, to wayward British teens in To Sir With Love, (1967). However, it is in In The Heat of the Night that Poitier was given the opportunity to sink his teeth - as well as his principles - into a powerful human drama addressing the volatility of race relations in America. These had yet to be tackled in any popular entertainment.
In reshaping John Ball’s original novel, screenwriter Stirling Silliphant astutely transposed the action to the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi (actually Sparta Illinois, to accommodate Poitier’s request that he not venture anywhere south of the Mason/Dixon line). Poitier did, in fact, acquiesce to Jewison’s need for a single shot of him riding in a car past a field of cotton pickers. Far from being accepted on their cinematic journey, cast and crew spent the bulk of their time hold up in a seedy motel on the outskirts of town – the only establishment to entertain a crowd of mixed ethnicity - with Poitier understandably remaining edgy until it was time to go home. Silliphant’s rewrite of Ball’s narrative holds close to the particulars of the novel, withholding none of its social commentary, an indictment on white America’s contribution to the festering malaise.
It is important to recall that movies prior to In The Heat of the Night usually did not have an opinion – unflattering or otherwise, and indeed, Jewison’s primary concern in making In The Heat of the Night was that perhaps no one would want to see it. He had nothing to fear. In The Heat of the Night took audiences – and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - by storm. Viewed today, In The Heat of the Night has lost none of its provocativeness. The picture moves with all the agility of a jungle cat let loose from its cage; the sparing between Sidney Poitier and co-star Rod Steiger (herein cast as bigoted police chief, Bill Gillespie, himself struggling with his own racial intolerance) sparking a taut electricity that crackles with mood and meaning.
At least part of In The Heat of the Night’s success is owed to composer Quincy Jones, whose jazz-inspired underscoring elevates the general timber of the drama to a whole new level. It also infuses the movie’s settings with a genuine feel for the ailing south. Listening to Jones’ slick and stylized pulsating rhythm and blues, one is aurally teleported to this gritty backwater with riffs and chords never before explored in movie underscoring. It’s a startling departure from the lush orchestral traditions of Hollywood’s middle-European influences and one generally overlooked in the wake of all the varying permutations that have since followed the movie’s success.
Apart from its more obvious ‘message’, In The Heat of the Night remains a superior drama. We begin with police officer Sam Wood’s (Warren Oates) grisly discovery of a body in an abandoned alley. It’s Philip Colbert (Jack Teter), the wealthy Chicago industrialist who had big plans to build a factory on the outskirts of Sparta, Mississippi. Ordered by his superior, police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to round up unusual looking suspects, Wood mistakenly arrests Virgil Tibbs, a northerner who, having just visited his sick mother is waiting at the station platform for the midnight train to take him home. Discovering a considerable amount of cash in Tibbs’ possession, Wood and Gillespie both jump to the wrong conclusion. Tibbs murdered Colbert for the cash. Their hunch is, of course, predicated on nothing more substantial than the fact that Tibbs is a black man. The initial confrontation between Gillespie and Tibbs leading up to the big reveal – that Tibbs is a Philadelphian homicide detective and therefore Gillespie’s equal – sets Gillespie off on a racial tirade.
But Gillespie’s temper is brought to a boiling point when he recognizes he is quite unable to solve Colbert’s murder by himself. Cleared of suspicion, Tibbs is allowed a phone call to his superiors back home and is chagrined when they order him to stay on to help solve the crime. The victim’s widow, Leslie Colbert (Lee Grant) welcomes Tibb’s expertise. This, of course raises Gillespie’s dander considerably. But when Leslie threatens to stop construction on her late husband’s factory – badly needed to stabilize the locally depressed economy – a bitter détente is formed between Tibbs and Gillespie. Despite their shared animosities, the pair evolves a mutual respect in their joint desire to wrap up the investigation.
Tibbs initially suspects wealthy plantation owner Eric Endicott (Larry Gates) of the crime. But are Tibbs’ suspicions motivated by the facts – that Endicott opposed the factory’s construction – or by his own prejudice toward this white man who is obviously a racist? Silliphant’s screenplay offers a rather uncommon and shocking parallel between Endicott and Tibbs motives, punctuating what is ultimately recalled as the movie’s most explosive scene; the aforementioned ‘slap around the world’. In making his probative inquiries of Endicott’s motives inside the old master’s hothouse teeming with orchids, Tibbs inadvertently insights Endicott to strike him on the cheek; the reaction reciprocated by Tibbs without hesitation a moment later. Even some forty plus years later, it’s a devastating scene to behold on the screen; Tibbs’ beady glare triggering almost tears from Endicott – who has suddenly realized the old ways of the south are no more – as Gillespie looks on with genuine surprise.
Endicott explains to Tibbs that there was a time he could have ordered him shot for this infraction. Instead, Tibbs and Gillespie leave the Endicott estate in a hurry, Gillespie more intent than ever to get Tibbs back on his train and out of town. But Tibbs has dug in his heals. He’s determined to see Endicott swing for the crime. To expedite their investigation, Tibbs asks to tag along with Sam Wood as he retraces his patrol route on the night of the murder. Gillespie, Tibbs and Wood wind up at a greasy spoon on the outskirts of town where bumpkin/counterman, Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James), refuses to serve Tibbs. But Tibbs now turns his attentions to Wood whom he recognizes as having changed his route for their benefit.
Tibbs reveals the change in route to Gillespie, though not Wood’s motives for it, and this raises more than few red flags, particularly after Gillespie discovers a sizable deposit in Wood’s bank account, made the day after the murder. Meanwhile, redneck Lloyd Purdy (James Patterson) has decided to file rape charges against Wood for getting his sixteen year old sister, Delores (Quentin Dean) pregnant. Without hesitation – and regrettably lacking more proof or provocation - Gillespie arrests Wood on suspicion alone for Colbert’s murder. Tibbs's strenuously objects and Purdy becomes incensed when he discovers Tibbs was present at Delores’ interrogation. To justify his embarrassment, Purdy decides to assemble a lynch mob to exact his revenge on Tibbs.
Tibbs exonerates Wood of any wrong doing by investigating the construction site where he discovers pylons made of pine – the same kind as fragments he found imbedded in Colbert’s scalp. He also points out to Gillespie that Wood could not have driven two cars at the same time; his own and another with Colbert’s body stuffed in the trunk and still have made his rounds on time. Tibbs now explains to Gillespie that Wood changed his route to conceal the fact he enjoyed driving by Delores’ bedroom to catch a glimpse of her standing naked by the window. It’s a perversion – though not a crime – and Gillespie has no alternative but to free Wood and rethink his case yet again. Tibbs confides in Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson), a simple-minded good ole boy incarcerated by Gillespie on a trumped up suspicion. Tibbs needs to know where a young girl in trouble would go for an abortion. Harvey cannot remember the name, but has Tibbs get in contact with his friend, Packy (Matt Clark) who drives him to an out-of-the-way convenience store run by Mama Caleba (Beah Richards).
Tibbs confronts Caleba and is surprised when his hunch plays out. Delores arrives for her abortion. The scene culminates in a showdown between Tibbs, Henshaw, Purdy and his mob. Realizing there is no way out but to reveal what he suspects, Tibbs tells Purdy that Delores has a crisp hundred in her purse for an abortion and that Henshaw – not Wood - is responsible for getting his sister pregnant. Henshaw nervously resists the implication. But Purdy investigates and finds the money in Delores handbag. Henshaw panics, shoots and kills Purdy before being disarmed by Tibbs. Shortly thereafter, Henshaw confesses in front of Gillespie to Colbert’s murder. It seems that in desperation for the abortion money Henshaw confronted Colbert in a holdup, then accidentally shot him. The case solved, Tibbs is escorted by Gillespie to the depot the next afternoon. Gillespie reveals his gratitude to Tibbs and the two men share a brief acknowledgement that neither could have resolved their investigation without the other. The train pulls out from the station, both men forever changed by their time spent together.
In many ways, In the Heat of the Night signals Hollywood’s joining the civil rights movement. The film is more than mere acknowledgement of the changing social climate or even a fanning of the inequity and frustrations soon to overpower the nation. In retrospect, the most remarkable aspect about the movie is its paralleling of mutual interests between Gillespie and Tibbs; the unlikeliest of compatriots on a mission demanding both their participations to see the investigation through successfully. While many will recall the underlying current of animosity between these two men of law enforcement, In the Heat of the Night is equally adept at exploring the similarities as well as the differences between them– each, in his own way, an outsider to the world that surrounds them. In some ways, Rod Steiger's pompous ‘law man’ is the more impressive performance of the two; undergoing a miraculous conversion of his diehard principles and gradually coming to recognize the immensity of his peer’s flawed racist attitudes.
Producer Walter Mirisch reportedly recognized the potential in John Ball’s novel immediately but had his misgivings about whether United Artists would be willing to pick up his tab. He had little to fear. After producing back to back hits for the studio UA was more than interested in whatever properties Mirisch had to offer. Their gamble and his paid off. In the Heat of the Night won Oscars for Steiger’s searing performance and the most coveted award of all: Best Picture. In the late 1980’s In The Heat of the Night became a successful prime time television series starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins. But by then, the tempestuousness between Gillespie and Tibbs had been largely diffused to the stock and formulaic buddy-buddy action/drama format.
I’ve rather given up on MGM/Fox to do right by their vintage library. The studio seems intent on reissuing old transfers merely bumped up to a 1080p signal rather than performing the necessary rescans of original camera negatives to yield the appropriate results. In The Heat of the Night was re-released to DVD in 2007 for its 40th Anniversary. It’s these same digital files that MGM/Fox is using for this Blu-ray release. First, the good news. The image is relatively crisp and generally razor-sharp with bold and richly saturated colors. It’s also relatively free of age-related artifacts.
Bad news: hints of edge enhancement inherent on the 2007 DVD have not been corrected for this Blu-ray debut and look even more obvious in hi-def. There also seems to be some artificial sharpening of the image, with hints of ringing halos infrequently appearing around brightly contrasted background information. Worse, there seems to be a complete lack of color correction. Flesh, in particular, adopts a very piggy pink patina. At times, Gillespie looks like he’s been hosed down with Pepto Bismol. Contrast also appears to have been slightly boosted. The visuals are very bright and I am not entirely certain this is in keeping with the original intent in Haskell Wexler’s cinematography. Whites in shirt collars and paper tend to adopt a yellowish tint. There’s no consistency to film grain either. During Tibbs’ examination of Colbert’s body at the coroner’s office and at intervals interspersed throughout the darker scenes grain can look heavy and rather unnaturally digitized, while at other moments it is practically non-existent, suggesting undue tinkering with DNR.
The audio has been remastered to 5.1 DTS and is remarkably aggressive in spots. Extras are all imports from the aforementioned DVD. These include an interesting audio commentary by Norman Jewison and actress Lee Grant and three short subjects on the making of the film and Quincy Jones’ contributions. Ironically, the producers of these extras did not seek out Sidney Poitier’s participation. Bottom line: In The Heat of the Night is a seminal work that requires repeat viewing and our enduring admiration. This Blu-ray is imperfect and, as a purist, I grow increasingly frustrated with the major studios’ collective lack of foresight to preserve the great American movie’s cultural heritage in optimal quality for future generations to appreciate, review and revive. I’m going to recommend this disc for its cultural significance, superb storytelling and performances. But as a reference quality disc it falls incredibly short of expectations. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)