Monday, December 12, 2011



In 1967, for the first time ever, the Academy acknowledged the civil rights movement in its best picture award, yes, after years of awarding escapist froth like 1964's MY FAIR LADY, the Academy finally awarded a film that dealt with racism in modern America.  Although prejudice was also the subject of 1947's GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was the first best picture winner to deal with race and to feature an African American actor in the lead.  In fact, almost all of 1967's best picture nominations showed the creeping influence of the counter culture in Hollywood: clever sex comedy, THE GRADUATE, the stunningly violent BONNIE AND CLYDE, and even GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, which showed Hollywood veteran stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn deal with their daughter's interracial marriage, (and which also starred Sidney Poitier) showed that something new was happening in American movies.  (Anyone interested in further information on these films can be directed to Mark Harris's excellent 2008 book "Pictures at a Revolution".)  Only the fifth nominee, the silly kiddie musical DOCTOR DOLITTLE, showed that old school Hollywood was still hanging in there.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was first published as a novel in 1965, written by John Ball, one of the few African American authors to write in the crime fiction genre.  It's success led to producer Walter Mirish purchasing the rights for the United Artists company.  Veteran director Norman Jewison was hired to direct, and Rod Steiger  was cast as Southern sheriff Gillespie.  When it came to casting the film's hero, homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, there was little question of who to get: Sidney Poitier.  Although African Americans had been involved with American film making from almost the very beginning (director Oscar Micheaux, for example, directed over forty movies from the silent era to the 1940's), most films with African American casts and directors were made almost entirely for African American audiences.  Poitier, on the other hand, was the first African American movie star to become famous with all audiences, starring in hit films like THE DEFIANT ONES and TO SIR WITH LOVE.  In 1967 he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, having become the first black actor to win a best actor Oscar for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.  He accepted the role, but demanded the film not actually be shot in its Southern setting, understandably fearing that the local residents would be angry about the portrayal of their town.  (Another Southern based film about racism made that year, Oscar Preminger's HURRY SUNDOWN, had resulted in death threats from the KKK towards the cast and crew).  Suitable shooting locations were found in a small town in Illinois (except for a few brief shots of a cotton plantation that could only be found in Mississippi), and the shooting went smoothly.  It would quickly become a sizable hit, making almost eleven million dollars on a budget of around two.

Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier

Set in the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi, the story begins with local police discovering the murdered body of wealthy industrialist Colbert.  Homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, who works in Philadelphia and was just in town to visit his mother, is first brought in as a suspect, and then winds up assisting local sheriff Gillespie in the investigation, while dealing with the racist attitudes (and even attacks) of the local townspeople.
The film's opening shots show a train running through a rural setting as Ray Charles sings the great title song and the credits role.  Eventually the train passes a welcoming sign for the state of Mississippi, and audiences of that time already could feel a sense of tension, knowing full well that Mississippi was the location of some of the worst violence of the civil rights era.   As the film continues,  Jewison keeps that tension going through nearly every scene; Virgil spends the whole movie forced to interact in situations  where he runs the risk of saying or doing something that could put his life in danger.  Therefore, Poitier's Virgil is a man of few words, and long, thoughtful looks as he sizes up the people around him before he makes his next move; he grimly accepts the casual racism of the people around him, but he can lash out when pushed too far.  This leads to one of the film's most memorable scenes:  while questioning wealthy plantation owner Endicott (Larry Gates), he lets it be known that he considers Endicott a prime suspect in the murder.  When Endicott angrily slaps him, Virgil slaps him right back, a moment that brought gasps from audiences in 1967.  It still plays well today, not just because of  Poitier's defiance, but also due to the stunned reaction the slap gets from Gillespie, who just can't believe what he's seeing!

The famous slap scene

Steiger, who won a best actor award for this role, has excellent chemistry with Poitier, as his loud and boisterous performance contrasts nicely with Poitier's taciturn Virgil.  I love the way that he sarcastically mocks the large amount of Virgil's salary, or the way that he gets Virgil to stay and  help with the case by playing up to Virgil's pride("You're just gonna stay here and show us all. You've got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame".)  More importantly, Steiger effectively shows his character changing in his racial attitudes as the film progresses, as he goes from angrily spewing epithets at Virgil to respecting his obvious intelligence and ability.  The quiet, admiring way that he says goodbye to Virgil at the film's end shows that the film believes that people can change, even in Mississippi in 1967.
As good as the two leads are, the film is far from perfect; this is especially true of its confused (and confusing) murder plot that meanders before reaching a less than surprising finish.  But really, the murder plot is just an excuse to get the two main characters working together, and on that level, the film excels, clearly influencing later interracial cop buddy movies like the LETHAL WEAPON films.


As much as I enjoy Poitier and Steiger,  and admire the Academy for taking a stand on the civil rights movement,  I still don't think this film holds up nearly as well as Arthur Penn's outstanding BONNIE AND CLYDE, not to mention Mike Nichols's generation defining classic, THE GRADUATE.  Still, as usual, the Academy's choice was far from a terrible one.