In the Heat of the Night (1967)
More famous for the racial tensions taht the film showcases proudly, "In the Heat of the Night" is only one of a few mystery/detective movies that won the Best Picture Oscar. You could argue that "Rebecca" sits in this category as might "Grand Hotel", if you really, really stretched the definition—the biggest detective/thriller movie to take the Oscars by storm being "The Silence of the Lambs".
With "In the Heat of the Night" we have a very realistic and nicely noir film about a murder, the racial issues are just part of the setting.
Set in a small town of Mississippi, the film starts with the arrival of a train in the dark, and most likely, heat of the night. On this train is a man named Virgil Tibbs (Sydney Poitier). After departing the train, he waits at the station for his connecting ride.
We cut to a policeman roaming the streets at night. He pauses at a window and ogles a teenage girl, stops to get a piece of pie and a coke, and he eventually comes across the body of a dead man.
Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) gets called in to the scene of crime. The dead man is the also the richest man in town, Mr. Colbert—and no, he doesn't have his own show. Colbert was in the process of building a factory in the small town which would hopefully employ most of the town.
Gillespie tells his men to check the railway stations to see if there's anyone trying to get away. An officer notices Virgil at the station and takes him in to see the chief without even questioning him.
After many insults are hurled his way, Virgil lets everyone know that he's from Philadelphia and he is a police officer.
Furious at the incompetence of his men, Gillespie calls Virgil's chief up and tries to smooth everything over. Suggesting that Virgil stay on the case and help out with the crime, Tibbs knows that his chief has gotten him into something much darker than just a measly murder.
The racism of the Southern town isn't the central point of the movie, but it turns the straight forward detective story into a compelling, character driven film.
Tibbs is a quiet man, one who likes to think things over. He doesn't care about the dead man or the factory, the construction of which is now put into question. When the police track down a boy with Colbert's wallet, they think they've found the killer and they don't consider the possibility that the boy found the dead man and took the wallet.
Playing the devil's advocate many times, Gillespie and Tibbs butt heads. The police chief just wants to pacify everyone involved and he thinks the right way to do this is to give the people the face of a killer.
Tibbs strives for justice.
Shot in a sweaty darkness, "In the Heat of the Night", more so than any other film, including "Dog Day Afternoon", pulls you into its world. The sticky, humid night is the perfect setting for a murder.
It's a thriller first of all and only after this a political commentary. What makes the film great is that it doesn't preach. It doesn't have "The Butler" moments when we think it's necessary to over-indulge in sentimentality. The film is more powerful because of this. Portraying Tibbs as a man and nothing more, the film never glorifies. Gillespie comes to accept Tibbs and respect him; but it's not accompanied by the 80s string music that we've become used to—thanks, John Williams.
It may come across as dry, indeed I thought as much the first time I saw it. A reviewing proved me wrong. "In the Head of the Night" is a tightly precise mystery with a lot of thought put into it. It has human protagonists who struggle with justice and prejudice.
Surviving, solving, conniving—"In the Heat of the Night" is a very enjoyable movie.
Posted by Micah Jones