My family have always been church-goers rather than movie-goers; I of course am the opposite, usually turning up to see new movies at the cinema sixty or seventy times a year. Nevertheless, when my father likes a movie, he really likes it, and several times in my youth I recall being sat down and commanded to watch something on the grounds that it was A Really Good Film. I must confess that on some occasions I simply bailed out long before the end (Olivier’s Henry V was just a bit too much of a stretch for a fairly young teenager, while the thing about Robert Newton in Treasure Island was… well, you see, it was on at the same time that the first Christopher Reeve Superman was on the other side), but many of these movies did indeed turn out to be Really Good.
One of these was Norman Jewison’s 1967 Oscar-winner In the Heat of the Night, which I was introduced to thirty years ago and which turned up in a revival just the other day. One review of this film, written in 2005, suggested that when first made it was timely, but now it is simply timeless. Well, I’m not completely sure this film is just a comfortable period piece, but I’m probably getting ahead of myself.
A hot night in the small Mississippi town of Sparta, and a patrolling cop finds the body of a murder victim. The dead man was planning on building a new factory in the area, providing desperately-needed jobs, but his proposal to employ white and black workers on an equal basis made him many enemies in the area. Nevertheless, local police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) adopts what appears to be his standard operating procedure – namely, arresting the likeliest subject in the area and extracting a confession by any means necessary. The recipient of this treatment on this occasion is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black man discovered at the rail station.
Very much to the embarrassment of all concerned, Tibbs turns out to be an elite homicide detective from Pennsylvania, literally just passing through. To defuse the resulting awkwardness, and basically because the plot demands it (this is permissible when it facilitates a set-up as perfect as In the Heat of the Night‘s), Virgil Tibbs’ off-screen superior basically lends him to the Sparta Police Department to help them solve the case of the murdered businessman, Neither Gillespie or Tibbs are exactly delighted about this turn of events, but Gillespie needs to find the killer if he wants to keep his job, and Tibbs finds he can’t resist the challenge of showing how much smarter he is than the chief and his squad of redneck good ol’ boys – even if his mere presence in Sparta puts his life in danger…
You can enjoy In the Heat of the Night on a number of levels – and this a hugely entertaining, richly enjoyable film – but, to be honest, the police-procedural murder-mystery element of the story is the least compelling element of it, and arguably the least well-developed, too – there’s something ever so slightly perfunctory about the way in which Tibbs, seemingly acting on not much more than a series of hunches, eventually figures out what the killing is really all about. (No spoilers, but let’s just say it has less to do with racial tension than another hot-button issue in the American culture wars.)
The thriller plotline is basically a hook on which to hang an examination of attitudes to race in the Deep South at the time the movie was made, and to a modern viewer some of the things in the movie are still quite shocking – ‘what are you doing in white man’s clothes?’ asks one minor character, upon seeing Tibbs in a suit and tie – and Tibbs is pursued by lynch-mobs at more than one point in the film. (Most of In the Heat of the Night was filmed in the rather more northerly climes of Illinois, mainly because Sidney Poitier had had a run in with the Klan during an earlier visit to a southern state and refused to spend an extended period there again. Apparently, during the production’s brief visit to the south, he slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, all of which just goes to show how urgent some of film’s concerns must have seemed at the time.) Tibbs is routinely called ‘boy’ or by his first name by the good people of Sparta – this of course produces the famous moment when Gillespie mockingly asks what they call him in Philadelphia and he responds ‘They call me MISTER Tibbs!’ – can’t get a motel room, can’t get served in some restaurants, and so on.
The film is always on Tibbs’ side, quite properly, but the magic of the film lies in the fact that, in his own way, Gillespie is almost as sympathetic as Tibbs. He may not be quite as talented an investigator as Tibbs, but Gillespie is still a pretty good cop who has dedicated his life to his job, for not very much reward. He’s intelligent enough to recognise his own prejudices and put them aside when necessary, and – crucially – Steiger delivers a performance with a nicely comic vein running through it. (It was Steiger who won the Oscar for Best Actor, not Poitier, who wasn’t even nominated that year despite making this film and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – perhaps a telling fact in itself.) The relationship between the laid-back Southern cop and the up-tight Northern detective – initially combative and adversarial, eventually approaching something like mutual respect, if not actual friendship – is at the heart of the film, driven by two terrific performances. (I feel quite foolish not to have noticed this earlier, but it’s surely the inspiration for the very similar pairing of Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard.)
And, while the film is to some extent the story of Virgil Tibbs as a stranger in a strange land, crucial to the narrative is the fact that this is not just a film about African-Americans as the victims of racism in the South, but one about prejudice and how no-one is truly immune to its pernicious influence. Tibbs heads off down a long blind alley on his investigation, simply because he becomes fixated on collaring a wealthy, openly racist local grandee for the murder – ‘Man, you’re just like the rest of us, ain’t you?’ says Gillespie, gently, realising Tibbs is not immune to this particular human failing, and Poitier’s face is a mask of uncomprehending shock as he realises the chief is right. In the end, however, both men have gone beyond their prejudices, and justice has been served, though at some cost – the climax is an implicitly hopeful one.
Fast forward to today and hope is in short supply for many people, of course: the freedoms and progress that were won around the time this film was made seem as fragile and vulnerable as at any time in the intervening years, if not actually under attack by the rising powers in the United States. Sometimes it seems like you can’t turn on the TV without seeing evidence of the racial and ideological faultlines running through society, not just in the US but in many other countries too. In the Heat of the Night still has enormous power and relevance, as well as reminding us of a whole series of powerful, political films that came out of a desire to engage with and improve the world, rather than simply entertain or distract their viewers. Hopefully the capacity to make new films in the same vein is still there – but even if it isn’t, we still have classics like this. One for the ages.