A gripping 1960s classic that could be ripped from the headlines of today
“In the Heat of the Night” is a seminal film about racism set in the context of a murder mystery. One of the reasons the film shines is from its first-rate script in which racism is not at all heavy handed but is center stage for the viewer to witness. I may not have seen a better film about prejudice. It stars two fantastic actors who are surrounded by a phenomenal supporting cast, along with masterful direction and technical inventiveness. “In the Heat of the Night” was a socially important film written during the Civil Rights Movement which has not lost its significance. It could have been written a month ago. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, it won five, including “Best Picture”. Quite a feat considering the year was 1967, a year many film historians believe to be the greatest year in cinema for producing groundbreaking films, second only to 1939. Films of 1967 include “The Graduate”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Cool Hand Luke”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, “In Cold Blood”, "Casino Royale", "The Dirty Dozen", "Reflections in a Golden Eye", "Up the Down Staircase", and "Valley of the Dolls”. Several of these films will appear in future entries on this blog.
Without giving spoilers, the film showcases the deep-seated and accepted prejudices that remain in the south regarding Blacks since before the Civil War. It is moving, suspenseful, appalling, and even funny at times. “In the Heat of the Night” is impactful because of the relationship between the two main characters, created from the stellar performances by stars Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. They take you along for a dynamic and moving journey with an almost strange tenderness between them. Their “bond” is very captivating and feels very real. It is almost like they are spending the entire film trying to find respect for one another. “In the Heat of the Night” is ultimately about social change, and is a prime example of how prejudice is altered once you get to know someone different than yourself. While the story takes place in Mississippi, the film was shot on location mostly in a small town in Illinois (with a few scenes filmed in Tennessee) which helps give that authentic feel.
“In the Heat of the Night” was flawlessly directed by a solid film director and producer, Canadian born Norman Jewison. His camera angels and setups are always creative in his films, not to mention the great performances he extracts from all his actors. “In the Heat of the Night” is no exception. Norman began directing television in the 1950s, and his TV credits include "The Judy Garland Show", "An Hour with Danny Kaye", and "The Wayne & Shuster Show”. He began directing films in 1962, and has directed about two dozen films including many classics such as “In the Heat of the Night”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, "Moonstruck", "The Cincinnati Kid", "The Thrill of It All", "Jesus Christ Superstar", "Rollerball", and "The Thomas Crown Affair”. Norman Jewison has been nominated for seven Academy Awards (including “Best Director” for “In the Heat of the Night”), never winning. Another top director to never win a competitive Oscar! He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999 for his body of work. Norman will turn 94 on July 21.
Sidney Poitier, who stars as “Virgil Tibbs”, is a living legend, icon, and trailblazer. He is arguably the most important Black actor in cinema history. He broke through the color barrier in films becoming the first Black leading man, the first Black movie star, and the first to win a “Best Actor” Academy Award. He was the top box office star the year “In the Heat of the Night” was released. Sidney was voted number 22 of the men on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends” and is only one of two people still alive on that list (the other being Sophia Loren, whom we’ll see as well). A Bahamian American born in Florida and raised in the Bahamas, Sidney moved to New York in the 1940s where he appeared on Broadway. He was spotted by Hollywood and his film career began with the 1950 film “No Way Out”, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who wrote and directed the first film on this blog, “All About Eve”). Sidney was choosy about his roles refusing to play racially stereotypical roles, and by doing so he opened the door for other Black actors and actresses to get better parts. He worked in television and film and had an important stand-out role in the 1955 classic "Blackboard Jungle”. His big break came in 1958’s "The Defiant Ones” where he starred opposite Tony Curtis, and the two of them received “Best Actor” Academy Award nominations, making Sidney the first Black actor to be nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar. In 1963 for the film “Lilies of the Field”, Sidney would become the first Black actor to win a “Best Actor” Academy Award. Along with his Oscar win and additional nomination, in 2001 he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his body of work. He appeared in films and TV until 2001, and some of his other classics include “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, "To Sir, with Love", "A Raisin in the Sun", "Porgy and Bess", "A Patch of Blue", and "Edge of the City”. His film roles often did not shy away, but instead dealt head on with race in one way or another. It might not sound like a big deal now, but he made most of these films in a segregated, unequal world. “In the Heat of the Night” is perhaps his most iconic role and he is outstanding in it. Though often outraged, his character “Virgil Tibbs“ doesn’t say much, yet is authoritative, patient and dignified - traits Sidney often radiated onscreen throughout his career. He portrayed the character of “Virgil Tibbs” again in two sequels to “In the Heat of the Night”, one in 1970 in “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!”, and in 1971's “The Organization”. He also directed nine films including "Uptown Saturday Night", "Stir Crazy", and "A Piece of the Action". He married twice and is still married today to his second wife. Sidney Poitier is 93 years old of as of the writing of this post.
Rod Steiger, who plays “Chief Bill Gillespie”, was an exceptional, charismatic, often imposing character actor. Stocky and not quite looking like a leading man, he generally played gruff, explosive, often vulnerable types, always with a quality that seemed like something was bubbling deep inside ready to erupt. Like Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and James Dean, he was a method actor (I speak a bit about the method in the “A Place in the Sun” entry). Rod began in theater, studied at the Actors Studio, and started doing mostly television and small parts in films in the early 1950s. In 1954 his breakthrough came with his first major role in the tremendous classic film “On the Waterfront”, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for “Best Supporting Actor”. A scene in that film with him sitting in a taxi with costar Marlon Brando was so well acted it became part of Hollywood history. “On the Waterfront” will definitely be on this blog in a future post where I’ll talk more about the film and that scene. Rod won a “Best Actor” Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night” (his only win), and received a third nomination for “Best Actor” in 1964’s “The Pawnbroker”. His role in “In the Heat of the Night” as the gum chewing, inept police chief “Gillespie” is not an easy one yet he gives a portrayal that is completely believable and honest. Tough, not too bright, vulnerable, yet with a strange charm about him, we can see him struggling with his morals throughout the film. It is a well deserved Oscar that will show you the depth of a great actor. He has well over 100 film and TV credits to his name, working mostly in the US and occasionally abroad. Some of the classics in which he appeared include “On the Waterfront”, "Doctor Zhivago", "The Longest Day", "The Harder They Fall", "The Illustrated Man", "The Pawnbroker", "The Sergeant", "No Way to Treat a Lady",, "Oklahoma!", and "The Amityville Horror". He was married five times, including once to actress Claire Bloom. Rod Steiger died in 2002 at the age of 77.
Everyone who appears in “In the Heat of the Night” is tremendous, and Warren Oates as “Officer Sam Wood” is certainly no exception. He is so authentic that if I didn’t know him from other films I might think “where did they find this guy… right off the street?”. Warren was a hugely gifted and prolific character actor who excelled at playing somewhat peculiar and intense men. He mostly worked in Westerns which was a good fit for his somber looks and slight Kentucky accent. Over time he’s become sort of a cult figure. He worked quite a bit in TV and films with innovative director Sam Peckinpah, most notably in the classic western, “The Wild Bunch”. Some of Warren’s other classics include "Ride the High Country”, "Two-Lane Blacktop”, “Dillinger", "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia", "Sleeping Dogs”, "Badlands", and “Stripes". He was married four times. Warren Oats died in 1982 at the age of 53.
Another standout and moving performance in “In the Heat of the Night” is from the brilliant actress Lee Grant who plays “Mrs. Colbert”. She is in the film only briefly but leaves an indelible mark. Lee has a very distinct screen presence in all her films with her deep voice, short red hair, and straightforwardness. She studied acting with the influential acting teacher Sanford Meisner at the famous "Group Theatre”. Lee is one of the actresses I can’t get enough of. I wish there were more films to watch featuring her. Sadly, just after appearing in her first film, “Detective Story” (a role she originated on Broadway), she became blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. I’ll talk more about the McCarthy Era in an upcoming blog. She was blacklisted from the time she was 24 until she was 36 - prime years for an actress. Due to being blacklisted she worked mostly in television, with occasional films - the bulk of which were in the 1970s after she was removed from the blacklist. She won a "Best Supporting Actress" Academy Award for the 1975 film "Shampoo", and was nominated for three additional Oscars, one each for "Detective Story" in 1951, "The Landlord" in 1970, and "Voyage of the Damned" in 1976. She is also a two time Emmy Award winner. In addition to "In the Heat of the Night" and the movies for which she was nominated, other notable films of hers include "Valley of the Dolls", "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell", "Plaza Suite", "Airport '77", "The Swarm", "Defending Your Life", and "Mulholland Drive”. In addition to acting, Lee is also a director, directing mostly documentaries and television, including the 1986 documentary "Down and Out in America", which won an Academy Award for "Best Documentary Feature". She was married twice and is still married today. According to IMDB, Lee Grant is 94 as of the writing of this entry (although she is notorious for hiding her age).
“In the Heat of the Night” was edited by the very talented Hal Ashby, who began as an editor, editing six films including "The Thomas Crown Affair", "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”, "The Cincinnati Kid”, and “In the Heat of the Night” (for which he won an Academy Award). He then became a remarkably successful director, directing such classic films as "Shampoo", "The Last Detail", "Harold and Maude", "Being There", "Coming Home", and "Bound for Glory". In addition to his Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night”, he was nominated for two additional Oscars, one for "Best Director" for "Coming Home", and one for "Best Editor" for "The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming". Hal Ashby died in 1988 at the age of 59.
The music in “In the Heat of the Night” was by Quincy Jones, a huge force and innovator in the music world. In addition to composing film scores, he is a music producer, composer, and arranger, and has worked with many top talents including Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Michael Jackson. He has also produced films and different types of television shows. His first film score was for “The Pawnbroker” (also starring Rod Steiger), and from there Quincy went on to compose about 70 more films and TV shows, and is still working today. He’s been nominated for nine Academy Awards, twice for "Best Original Score" (for "In Cold Blood" and "The Color Purple"), and was awarded an honorary Humanitarian Oscar in 1995. Some of the films he's composed music for include "The Getaway", "For Love of Ivy", "Cactus Flower", "The Pawnbroker", "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice", "The Color Purple", "In Cold Blood", and "In the Heat of the Night”. He also composed the music for the title song in “In the Heat of the Night”, and legendary singer Ray Charles sings it in the film. Quincy has been married three times, including once to actress Peggy Lipton with whom he had two children, including actress Rashida Jones. He also lived and had a daughter with actress Nastassja Kinski. As of the writing of this post, Quincy Jones is 87 years old, and still going strong.
Get ready for an incredible ride while watching “In the Heat of the Night”. Enjoy!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Some of the situations in "In the Heat of the Night" are a bit close to home these days. In the film, Blacks are treated over and over with a lack of respect and dignity. In fact, the film’s story emerges from a cop arresting a Black man simply because he is Black.
While the film shows the ineptness and racism of a police department (they keep arresting people without substantial evidence), don’t forget that “Virgil” is also a cop. The locals refused to speak to “Virgil”, shake hands with him, and are even uncomfortable letting him wash his hands in their office (the scene in the mortician’s office). On the other hand, “Mrs. Colbert” (like “Virgil”) is from the north, and has no trouble with his race, demanding he stay on the case, and in her very moving breakdown scene takes his hand for comfort. In my view all of this, along with several visual references to Confederacy, makes the film about the need to let go of the “old south’s” morals and values to obtain justice and order.
The scene in the greenhouse where the Black “Virgil” slaps the white ”Endicott” has become iconic. Strange as it may sound today it was a big deal for a Black man to hit a white man on film at the time. It is rumored that it was only because of that scene Sidney agreed to be in the film. Poitier’s line, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” became one of the most famous lines in cinema history.
Through the changing of the two main characters we are left with a glimpse of social change, and a hope that human values can override prejudice. "In the Heat of the Night" is as powerful and meaningful a film today as it was when it was first released.