In the Heat of the Night is a 1967 American mystery drama film directed by Norman Jewison. It is based on John Ball‘s 1965 novel of the same name and tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi. The movie changes various details found in the book from relatively minor ones (Virgil Tibbs in the book is an officer in California) to more major (basic details of the murder, including the victim, are different). It stars Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, and was produced by Walter Mirisch. The screenplay was by Stirling Silliphant.
The film contains the famous scene in which Tibbs and Gillespie visit the home of Eric Endicott to question him, following Tibbs’ discovery of trace evidence in the murder victim’s car (a piece of osmundine). Upon discovering that Tibbs is suggesting he murdered Colbert, Endicott slaps Tibbs. Tibbs slaps him back. Reportedly, Tibbs’s action was originally omitted from the screenplay, which stayed true to the novel with Tibbs not reacting to the slap. However, when Poitier read the script, he was purportedly uncomfortable with that reaction, as it was not true to the values his parents instilled in him. He requested that the producers alter the scene to Tibbs slapping Endicott back. This was important because of the ongoing battle for civil rights, which was still raging in 1967, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was one of the first times in any major motion picture when a black man reacted to provocation from a white man in such a way.
Referring to the scene Poitier said, “[The scene] was almost not there. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll make this movie for you if you give me your absolute guarantee when he slaps me I slap him right back and you guarantee that it will play in every version of this movie.’ I try not to do things that are against nature.” However, Poitier’s version of the story is contradicted by Mark Harris in his book, Pictures at a Revolution. Harris states that copies of the original draft of the screenplay that he obtained clearly contain the scene as filmed, which is backed up by Jewison and Silliphant.
The film is also important for being the first major Hollywood film in color that was lit with proper consideration for a person of African descent. Haskell Wexler recognized that standard strong lighting used in filming tended to produce too much glare on that kind of dark complexion and rendered the features indistinct. Accordingly, Wexler toned it down to feature Poitier with better photographic results.
Well-Crafted Murder Mystery With A Twist
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is a well-crafted murder mystery with a twist. Sidney Poitier is a big city detective wrongfully arrested by a racist small police detachment after the brutal murder of the town’s would-be financial savior. Once the matter is resolved and Poitier released, he finds himself aiding his former captors, including Police Chief Rod Steiger, in their quest to get to the bottom of the crime.
An Academy Award winner for Best Picture, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT works on so many levels. It’s a solid, unpredictable whodunit with beautiful cinematography and crisp direction from Norman Jewison. All the actors are on top of their games, particularly Steiger, whose not-entirely-likable chief gradually looks past his prejudices to warm up to Poitier. Poitier is his usual superb self, once again maintaining his vast dignity as the target of bigotry, much like he did in THE DEFIANT ONES.
And like THE DEFIANT ONES, a key theme in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is racism. In fact the racism on display here is so fierce and perverse that it’s almost hard to believe (though I’m sure it didn’t stretch a thing). You can’t help but feel an emotional attachment to Poitier as he’s subjected to taunts, attempted attacks, and off-color remarks from those who either don’t realize the power of their words or don’t care. Poitier proves again why he is perhaps the finest African-American actor ever to grace the screen.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is one of those movies that, while not perfect, is impossible to dislike. It’s classic, though still relevant, entertainment.