In The Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)
In a small town of Mississippi named Sparta and during a normal night, a policeman Sam Wood (Warren Oates) finds the body of the richest man in town dead and in blood. His head seems to have been smashed by an object. Passing by the same night is the homicide agent Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) from Philadelphia. At first, people of the place make the easiest link between the stranger in town and the murder. Especially since Tibbs is a black man, Gillepsie (Rod Steiger) the county sheriff gets all his suspicions on him. However, he soon discovers that Tibbs is a police officer and that he could be his best help to resolve the crime.
The whole film challenges Gillepsie’s stereotypes and the townspeople’s racism. Without always being clearly stated by some, others will demonstrate their hate towards the black man who sees one, two and even three steps ahead of their sheriff. It is also obvious that Quentin Tarantino has made some hints to this film with his Django Unchained. Especially, the scene where his two protagonists visit a plantation of cotton. Their arrival is shot almost the same way in both films.
The two leads, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger give amazing performances and their duo might have inspired some of the most interesting black/white leads in the likes of Lethal Weapon and Miami Vice. With their great chemistry and rivalry on the screen, the final moment of the two characters together gets even more meaningful.
Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many Hollywood films will treat about racism and how intolerance can be surpassed. I think that the path that Gillepsie took might be similar to John Wayne’s Ethan in The Searchers where he discovers his racism and learn to tolerate his niece.
The whole film is shot with nice compositions of subtle frames and low angle cameras. Just as Hal Ashby’s editing and Quincy Jones’ score are bringing a fresh note to this film that treats a heavy but mandatory subject. It is also a very good directing credit for Norman Jewison who never was on the A-list of directors but managed to make a film that makes me think that the New Hollywood of the 1970’s was not far with Hal Ashby in the credits. There’s a sense of a time of changes and evolution in the movie and even if the conservatism values of the South were shocked a little I think it helped the cause of the black Americans. This is not Dennis Hopper’s Easy Riders or Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde but I think it was on the verge of this revolution in American Films.
Finally, this American classic proves to be very effective and even if in more that forty five years later the society has evolved I feel that the subject treated by In the Heat of the Night isn’t much dated. The mystery and drama are well executed and even if some characters are broad, others have depth that can’t be denied and may be some of the best reasons to watch the damn film.