I have a hard time sitting still and doing nothing when I watch movies. I get kind of antsy unless I have another project to occupy my time, so I’ll paint my nails or play a game on my phone or crochet a hat while the movie plays in the background. But doing this project has forced me to change all that. If I want to appreciate good acting or interesting camera work or immerse myself in another time through excellent production design, I have to give the movie my full attention. The first time I watched In the Heat of the Night, I was messing around on my computer. I thought it was a good movie, an interesting movie, but not that great. Then I watched it again on my big TV instead of my little computer screen, and I didn’t do anything but watch the movie. I was blown away. It was a totally different experience, and I understood the (well-deserved) acclaim.
So what’s the story? Late one summer’s night in Sparta, Mississippi, a police officer finds the murdered body of a prominent man lying in the street. The police start searching for the murderer, and they soon find and arrest the perfect suspect: Virgil Tibbs, a black man who is sitting in the train station. However, Virgil says he’s not a transient or a criminal, but a police officer from Philadelphia; he was just waiting for his train home. Sheriff Gillespie, the head of police in Sparta, calls Philadelphia to verify this, and the police chief in Philadelphia tells Gillespie that Tibbs is the best homicide detective in Philadelphia and that Tibbs should help on the case. None of the (white) police officers in Sparta want to accept help from black man, but the widow of the murdered man insists that Tibbs remain on the case. Tibbs and Gillespie now have to overcome their prejudices to work together to solve the murder.
The Good: I always seem to start with the acting, but I think that’s because bad acting ruins a movie so quickly. There was some good acting here. Rod Steiger won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gillespie. I wasn’t completely convinced that he deserved it over Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner until the scene where the four thugs have cornered Tibbs in the warehouse. At that point, something clicked for me, and I realized what a truly stellar job he was doing. Sydney Poitier is excellent as he always is as Virgil Tibbs. Lee Grant plays the widow; she isn’t in the movie much, but she commands every scene she’s in. Her heartbreak when she’s told of her husband’s death is so painful that it’s difficult to watch.
The story here is excellent. It’s based on a novel that I haven’t read, so I’m not sure what’s been changed and what was original, but it makes a great movie. I love how well-developed all the characters are. It would have been so easy to make Tibbs perfect, but he has his flaws, too, which are shown when he fixates so strongly on a suspect (who is admittedly a terrible person) that he loses all perspective on the case. The story and screenplay are so well done. And this movie gave us a classic line: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”
The cinematography was interesting. I loved the part where Tibbs is examining the body. The camera cuts to his hands to show his skill and confidence as he explains what he will need to do a proper examination. The camera focuses hands in another scene, too. When Tibbs and Gillespie are going to go visit the wealthy cotton planter, they drive past a field of cotton being picked by black workers. Here, the camera’s focus serves to contrast Tibbs’s job and skills with those of the workers. If Tibbs had lived here, it seems to say, this is what he might be doing. At other times, the cinematography feels almost musical. As the cameraman zooms in on a fleeing suspect, for instance, it accentuates the tension almost like a crescendo in a piece of music. It adds a lot to the movie.
The Bad: The only thing that made this movie feel dated was the music. It just screamed the 1960s to me. It might have been groundbreaking at the time, but it feels very old-fashioned now.
The Ugly: The ugliest thing in this movie is the attitudes of the people, from the moment Tibbs is arrested because he’s an unknown black man to the climax where the thugs show up at Mama Caleba’s. But it’s this ugliness that allows the beauty of the eventual mutual acceptance and respect of Tibbs and Gillespie shine through.
Oscars Won: Best picture; best sound; best actor in a leading role (Rod Steiger); best film editing; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best director; best effects, sound effects.