If you have never seen Sidney Poitier act, 1967’s small town southern whodunnit, In the Heat of the Night is the one to see. If you have seen Sidney Poitier act, it is still worth seeing the still-living legend (he is now 93 and retired) execute his craft masterfully.
Set in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a police officer from Philadelphia (Pennsylvania – there is also one in Mississippi) who is visiting his mother in Sparta and then is wrongfully arrested and accused of the murder of Phillip Colbert, a local businessman who is found in the street by officer Sam Wood. While interrogating Tibbs, Chief of Police Gillespie (Rod Steiger) learns that Tibbs is a cop and speaks to his commanding officer, who recommends that Tibbs, being an expert in homicide investigations, might be able to help solve the crime. Throughout the balance of the film, Tibbs is frequently outdoing the local cops, figuring out that the killer is left handed, ruling out the first suspect that is arrested and figuring out the scene of the murder based on soil found on the brake pedal of Colbert’s vehicle. Gillespie repeatedly tries to get Tibbs off the case and out of town, but Colbert’s widow is impressed with his investigation and wants him on the case and the Mayor views using Tibbs as no lose – if he screws is up, it isn’t their fault, if he solves the case, they will get the credit. Tibbs own motivation for sticking around seems to be that he wants to show up the local cops and that he has a genuine interest in them not getting things wrong.
Tibbs initially suspects Endicott (no first name given), a wealthy cotton farm owner and business rival of Colbert’s and his questioning of Endicott leads to a dramatic scene where Endicott slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him back, to the racist dismay of both Endicott and Gillespie.
Gillespie suspects Wood of the crime after it is discovered that he has $600 in cash (approximately the amount believed to be stolen off Colbert’s body) and Wood is accused by Delores, a local 16 year old of getting her pregnant and when he lies to them about the route he took the night of the murder. Tibbs clears Wood, demonstrating that the killing happened on the cotton farm, ruling Wood out, who had been on patrol in town.
Tibbs believes that Dolores pregnancy is somehow linked to the crime and tracks down an illegal abortionist (abortion was still illegal in Mississippi in 1967) and learns that Dolores is about to get an abortion. He follows her and finds out her boyfriend is Ralph, a cook at a local diner. As he is confronting Ralph, Delores’ brother shows up with a gang of rednecks, planning to go after Tibbs. Tibbs shouts for him to check Delores’ purse for money that Ralph has given her for an abortion. Discovering Tibbs is right, he confronts Ralph, who shoots him in the ensuing shuffle. Gillespie shows up and arrests Ralph, who confesses to the murder. The movie closes with Gillespie carrying Tibbs bag to the train station for him, thanking him and shaking his hand, a belated show of respect for what Tibbs did on the case.
The movie is filled throughout with southern racism in brutal detail, epitaphs, attempted assaults and generally disrespect are shown to Tibbs throughout the entire script. Tibbs ability to carry on and solve the crime while he processes the wave of emotions that comes with the insults and risks to his personal safety is one of the most striking aspects of the film.
Poitier is exquisite in this movie, as I mentioned at the outset and the supporting cast present a vivid picture of the small town south. The mystery itself takes twists and turns that you don’t expect and it isn’t until the end that the story really comes together. The production and cinematography are first rate.
The film has some flaws – Tibbs is such a central focus of the story but we learn little about him – is he married? Does he have kids? He was visiting his mother but never speaks to her or sees her throughout the film. This would all make him a bit one-dimensional but for the way Poitier can carry a role with just a wince or a smile.
There is also little balance in the portrayal of the small town south – save for Mrs. Colbert, pretty much everyone in town is a small-minded racist and the police department in Sparta seems incapable of the most basic of investigative techniques.
The movie spawned a long-running television series, but it never lived up to the film – it didn’t have Poitier.
This is a film worth savoring, squirming over and rewatching.
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 8/10
Total Score: 36/40