Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” remains one of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger’s banner dramas, it’s a tense, taut, and engrossing crime thriller that brings to life one of the most compelling on screen heroes I’ve ever seen. Based on John Ball’s series of books about African American gumshoe named Virgil Tibbs, Jewison brings to the screen the first of the books. “Heat,” as written by Stirling Silliphant for the big screen is an imperfect drama with a little bit too much fat to the narrative, but in the end it comes out as a pretty as remarkable drama about the racially turbulent South and a man trying to uncover a crime that reaches far deeper than anyone, even the police chief, realizes.
Set in the middle of a hot summer in a Mississippi town, a well known industrialist is found murdered on the side of a road. While investigating, young Virgil Tibbs is confronted by police at a train station and arrested for the fact that he’s African American. Convinced he must have committed the murder on the basis of being black, police Gillespie is surprised to learn Virgil Tibbs is in fact a well paid detective who is talented in helping solve murders. When his superior insists Virgil stay to help solve the crime, Tibbs has to endure the racial tension and prejudice in the small town while discovering a larger scheme behind the death of the well known industrialist. While Jewison’s crime drama is packed to the brim with brilliant performers, “In the Heat of the Night” is carried by the sheer brilliance of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.
Both men present a dynamic that’s compelling and absolutely mesmerizing, but never heavy handed. Jewison stacks the deck against Virgil Tibbs from the moment we meet him, conveying a man who is faced with sheer hatred every day and plays to the routine with a sense of disgust but knowledge on how to comply without descending in to violence. Poitier plays Tibbs as a man who is so much smarter than anyone realizes and brings to life an entertaining hero and protagonist who you want to see come out ahead. The interplay with the various locals, including Steiger’s Chief Gillespie amounts to a lot of thick tension and suspense, and their relationship grows over the course of the narrative. Gillespie’s turn from a hateful bigot to someone who gradually learns to respect Tibbs.
While “In the Heat of the Night” is a crime drama in its core, it’s also about how Tibbs manages to maneuver around so much opposition and tribalism within the small town that loathes him for his race. The way he manages to slowly peel away at the murder and uncover this elaborate scheme is absolutely fantastic. Tibbs is almost always at danger, to the point where even Gillespie begins to fear for his life. Jewison turns Steiger and Poitier in to an unlikely duo of crime solvers, both of whom have to set aside their own ideas about one another to get to the core of what’s occurring in this small town. “In the Heat of the Night” is a strong, compelling crime drama that excels on a subtle murder mystery with pre-civil rights era window dressing, and it’s worthy of a watch for curious viewers in the mood for a great mystery. I hope we can see Tibbs resurrected for modern audiences again.
The new release from Criterion includes a 2008 audio commentary with director Jewison, Grant, actor/co-star Rod Steiger, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. There are 2018 interviews with Norman Jewison, recorded by the Criterion Collection in Toronto in October, along with an interview with actor Lee Grant recorded by the Criterion Collection in New York in September. There’s an eight minute segment form the 2006 American Film Institute, and an interview with actor Sidney Poitier for the “100 Cheers” television special, exploring the one hundred most inspiration films of all time, originally aired on June 14th 2006. There is a brand new eighteen minute interview with Aram Goudsouzian, chair of the history department at the University of Memphis and author of “Sidney Poitier’s Man, Actor, Icon.”
It was recorded by the Criterion Collection in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 2018. There’s “Turning Up the Heat: Movie-Making in the ’60s,” a twenty one minute program from 2008, about the production of the film and its legacy. It features director Jewison, Wexler, producer Walter Mirisch, and filmmakers John Singleton and Reginald Hudlin. The thirteen minute “Quincy Jones: Breaking New Sound” is a 2008 program about Jones’ soundtrack including the title song by Ray Charles. There are interviews with Jones, lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and musician Herbie Hancock. Finally there’s the original movie trailer. The Blu-Ray packaging from Criterion comes with a liner notes essay by critic K. Austin Collins.