I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1967 winner, In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. This was actually the second time I've seen the movie, having watched it several years ago.
In the Heat of the Night is both a murder mystery and a message movie, touching on issues of racism and social politics along with unraveling a crime. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger create an unforgettable duo as policemen from different backgrounds, trying to work together.
The other competitors that year were Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which coincidentally also starred Poitier.
In addition to Best Picture, the film also won Best Actor in a Leading Role (Steiger), Best Film Editing (Hal Ashby), Best Sound, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel by John Ball).
The movie begins on a hot summer night as a young police officer, Sam Wood (Warren Oates) is policing his route. He finds a dead body in the street and tells Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger), who tells his officers to round up any likely suspects. This is how Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), who happens to be waiting for a train, gets pulled into the situation. Of course, not only is he not responsible for the crime; he also happens to be a homicide detective from Philadelphia. After straightening things out with his superior officer, he reluctantly agrees to stay and help solve the murder.
While this movie is a murder mystery with plenty of twists and turns, it is more about the relationship between Gillespie and Tibbs, two men from vastly different worlds. The film takes place in the South, during a time of racial tension. As Tibbs tries to follow standard procedure, he is met with varying degrees of prejudice from people in the community, although the widow insists she wants him to work on the case, since he proves more competent than the local police.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the film is that the dialogue is fairly sparse. The complicated relationship between Gillespie and Tibbs is often conveyed as much through glances, inflection and body language as it is through the words themselves, which is a realistic portrayal of the way that prejudices manifest.
Poitier alternates between thinly-disguised righteous anger and intense focus when he's investigating evidence. For his part, Steiger portrays the chief as vacillating between pride, prejudice and humility, as he begins to respect and even admire the man he initially saw as inferior. Interestingly, one of the quirks about the chief, his penchant for chewing gum, was a suggestion by director Jewison which Steiger initially resisted. Reportedly, he began to love the idea and went through 263 packs of gum during the shooting. This quirk is an interesting choice, because it often serves as way for the chief to stall as he tries to think of how to handle situations that he, as a small-town police chief, has rarely faced.
Some of their interactions, including a scene at the police chief's house, came from improvisations between the two actors, which aided the naturalistic feel.
Stark sets and deep shadows convey a sense of uneasiness, which helps the viewer to share the uncomfortable feelings of outsider Tibbs. The most welcoming space he finds, with a local family, is a very run-down, not terribly homelike dwelling. While the film was shot on location, it was actually shot in Sparta, Illinois, not Mississippi. The name of the town was changed to Sparta to avoid the necessity of changing local signs.
It would be nice to believe that racial issues were a thing of the past, but sadly, they're not. While the social conditions have changed, the message is still relevant today in this thought-provoking, engaging film. There's little surprise why this is Poitier's favorite of his films.
By skilled actors, as much can be said with gestures as with words.