In comparison to its Best Picture colleagues of the 1960s, In the Heat of the Night stands out as a pronounced departure from the musicals and historical epics that so dominated the decade. A topical film told with edge and grit, In the Heat of the Night feels like a page ripped from the diary of its time and plastered up on screen. Despite a twangy soundtrack and some dated dialogue, time has not blunted the film’s taut, suspenseful qualities. Nor has its message of tolerance and respect lost any of its sizzle. Several reasons account for this preservation: characters that matter, electrifying lead performances and an outspoken, truthful depiction of race relations that, refreshingly, doesn’t feel motivated to make any type of a political point. But above all, a great line also improves a film’s chances of retaining memorability, and “They call me Mister Tibbs!” is about as good as it gets, old sport.
Directed by famed Canadian director Norman Jewison, whose resume includes Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck, as well as some Doris Day flicks, In the Heat of the Night marked his first inclusion into Oscar’s Best Director category. The film’s cast is led by top-drawer talent Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in two career defining performances. Of the two, Steiger arguably has the flashier role, which I think is why he went on to net so many accolades for this role, including the Oscar for Best Actor. What’s strange, outrageous even, is that Poitier’s name was left completely off the short list of Best Actor nominees, especially in light of his strong supporting work that same year in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? I would contend that without Poitier’s formidable presence matching Steiger’s swagger, the latter’s performance would not have been as deftly realized. Its years like this that makes it a shame the Academy doesn’t buck its own rules from time to time and award two Oscars for the same category.
Boiled down to its core, In the Heat of the Night is essentially a whodunit. But what makes it intriguing is that it’s more of a who-cares-whodunit. As an audience, you never meet Mr. Colbert; therefore no emotional investment is ever transacted into this guy. The fact that he’s been bludgeoned on the head only conjures up a fleeting interest in him at best. Snooze right? In all honesty, who really cares who murdered this random person? The film’s true suspense and tension is rooted in the question of whether or not Tibbs and Gillespie will be able to turn a blind eye to their differences and solve this case. Despite his prejudiced attitude towards Tibbs, it’s clear that Gillespie’s nature in this regard is more a product of his environment than a deeply nurtured belief. At heart, he’s a good man who comes to respect and admire Tibbs, despite the periodic emergence of backward thinking. On the other hand, Tibbs is, and rightfully so, a proud, accomplished individual who knows he is heads and tails above any of the doofuses on the Sparta police force when it comes to detective finesse. But the question still looms: Will Tibbs suffer the local yokels in the name of pursuing justice?
Favorite Line: I know this is unoriginal of me, but “They call me Mister Tibbs!” is just too classic to overlook as a selection for my favorite line in this film. It’s not so much the line itself, but it’s the way Sidney Poitier rolls up the thunder from his belly and releases the words with such striking force. Anyone watching this film wearing a toupee is likely to have it blown right off their noggin when that line reverberates through the speakers.