#14) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
OR “The ColberT Report”
Directed by Norman Jewison
Written by Stirling Silliphant. Based on the novel by John Ball.
Class of 2002
Enjoy the film’s fast-paced and oddly-cropped trailer.
The Plot: In the sleepy town of Sparta, Mississippi, a man named Colbert is murdered one night, and Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) investigates. His police bring in a potential suspect named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who turns out to be an expert homicide detective passing through from Philadelphia. Under circumstances that neither of them can control, the two men must work together to solve the case. Clues unravel and secrets are revealed, as the citizens of Sparta do not take kindly to the “boy” who has come to town.
Why It Matters: The NFR highlights Jewison’s “effectively flashy” direction. Also included is an essay by film expert Michael Schlesinger that praises this film, while putting down Poitier’s other 1967 offering, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
But Does It Really?: Oh hell yes. A story of racial tension that doesn’t brutalize its black characters or coddle its white characters, this film is just as edgy and effective as it was in 1967. Part of that is how this country has (or hasn’t) changed, but a lot of it is the actual film. “In the Heat of the Night” is well written without hitting you on the head with it, directed with a fine balance of heavy and light, and acted impeccably by the whole cast. Poitier and Steiger both play complex, flawed men who do not want the other one around, and it makes the whole thing worth watching. A top-notch film that shows us where we were, where we are, and where we still need to go. Now that’s a classic.
Everybody Gets One: Amazingly this is the only film on the registry for Oscar winning actor/producer/director Lee Grant. Also on hand is William Schallert, who had just finished playing Poppo on “The Patty Duke Show”, and Beah Richards, who would go on to play Sidney Poitier’s mother in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”**. And special mention to Jack Teter as Mr. Colbert (aka “The vic” in “Law & Order” parlance).
Wow, That’s Dated: ‘60s phrases like “Ya dig?” and “this scene”.
Wow, That’s Not Dated: Literally everything else about this movie. Come on people, step it up. It’s been 50 years for crying out loud.
Take a Shot: No one actually speaks the phrase “In the heat of the night” in this film, but Ray Charles sings the hell out of it during the opening and closing credits.
Seriously, Oscars?: In a very competitive year, “In the Heat of the Night” managed to snag five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. In an equally crowded Best Actor category, they gave the award to Steiger (overdue from his work in “The Pawnbroker”) but managed not to nominate Poitier’s more subtle yet equally impressive performance. Also missing out on nominations were Quincy Jones for his score and Haskell Wexler for his cinematography. And despite helming the best picture of the 1967, Norman Jewison did not win Best Director (See “The Graduate”).
- When a film from 1967 begins with a nude woman walking around, it’s their way of saying “Goodbye, Hays Code!”
- Title number aside, the songs in this film are pretty bad. Mainly because they are Alan & Marilyn Bergman trying to write country lyrics. Stick to “The Way We Were”, kids.
- The internet says that Steiger’s performance is partially based on the Dodge Sheriff, but I can’t find any evidence of that character’s existence prior to 1969, two years after this film was released. Perhaps it’s the other way around?
- Ladies and Gentlemen, Officer Shagbag.
- Speaking of Gillespie’s staff; Peter Whitney (Courtney) has the best eyebrows in the business.
- There’s a point when the thugs are driving after Virgil that the score turns into the “Jaws” theme just for a second. I mean, two notes aren’t that hard to copy, but Quincy may have a good lawsuit on his hands.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the iconic moment when uber-racist suspect Endicott slaps Virgil, and Virgil slaps him right back. It’s still quite powerful watching it today, though keep in mind that at the time of this writing Nazi-punching has become America’s favorite pastime again.
- Two sorta-sequels of Virgil’s further adventures; “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” & “The Organization”. They are sequels in the sense that Sidney Poitier plays a character named Virgil Tibbs.
- A TV series in the late ‘80s, with Howard Rollins as Virgil and Archie Bunker himself as Gillespie.
- I blame this film for that time Rod Steiger played W.C. Fields.
- And that time Sidney Poitier fought Mecha-Streisand.
- This Sparta resident who is a little too proud of his hometown.
- Everyone who says, “They call me Mister Tibbs”; most notably this cartoon warthog voiced by Ernie Sabella.
Listen to This: If you can’t get enough of that title song, you’ll enjoy Ray Charles’ first hit, 1959’s “What’d I Say (Parts 1 and 2)”. Widely considered one of the best recordings ever, it was selected for the National Recording Registry in 2002, the same year “In the Heat of the Night” was added to the NFR. Coincidence? I think…yes.
** 2017 Update: And wouldn’t you know it, that’s Beah Richards’ other film on the Registry.