The Good: Great acting, Moments of character, Moments of plot
The Bad: Thematically repetitive, Light on DVD bonus features
The Basics: Intense and socially memorable, In The Heat Of The Night puts a black homicide detective in the Deep South after a murder investigating amid racist white folks.
One of the nice things about investigating the classics of American Cinema is that I am finally witnessing some of the great actors and actresses of American Cinema. To wit, last night when I sat up and watched In The Heat Of The Night, it was the the first film I had ever seen Sidney Poitier in. Come to think of it, it was also the first movie I saw Rod Steiger in and I hear he's a pretty big deal in American Cinema of the late Twentieth Century, so that's pretty big. On the topic of "real big," I can see why In The Heat Of The Night was such a big deal when it was released in the late 1960s. At a time when Civil Rights legislation was actually being passed, a murder mystery where a small Southern city has to rely on a black homicide detective would be a huge deal.
And In The Heat Of The Night is a good movie, but it's tiresome in its thematic monotony. I'm a staunch liberal and I am proud of so much that has been done in the recent past to try to right the wrongs of the more distant past. But in watching In The Heat Of The Night, the film becomes monotonous because so much of the film is bogged down in repeating itself and the ideas that Mr. Tibbs is competent and the citizens of Sparta, Mississippi are prejudiced against blacks. Considering In The Heat Of The Night, I found myself smiling because the best phrased I could come up with came from a joke from Family Guy when Peter explains why he doesn't like The Godfather: "It insists upon itself" ("A Griffin Family History"). In many ways, In The Heat Of The Night becomes so wrapped up in its themes that it gets repetitive at points. So, unlike a film like Milk which has an impressive focus on civil rights, but is entertaining for the characters and plot, In The Heat Of The Night is far more erratic than many would like to consider it.
After being denied his dessert at a local dive, officer Sam Wood drives around Sparta, Mississippi on the beat. After peeking in on a naked woman, he turns down an alley and comes across a dead body. The body is that of an industrialist, Colbert, who is working on a big project in Sparta where his workforce is comprised of a decent number of ethnic minorities. Wood instantly hunts anyone in Sparta who is unfamiliar and his trip takes him to the train station where he arrests Virgil Tibbs, a black man waiting for the 4:05 A.M. train, on suspicion of the murder for being out of place and having over a hundred dollars in cash on him. Wood looks the fool, though, when Tibbs is returned to the police station and turned over to Police Chief Gillespie where he reveals that he is a homicide detective from Philadelphia. Red faced, Gillespie releases Tibbs, but is encouraged by Tibbs's lieutenant to use him to solve the Colbert murder.
Reinforcement for that demand soon comes from Mrs. Colbert when Gillespie locks up another suspect who does not fit the profile of the killer based upon Mr. Tibbs's autopsy. Tibbs soon discovers that the murder suspect is just a common thief and he sets his sights on Colbert's business enemy based on more circumstantial evidence found in Colbert's car. As Tibbs and Gillespie search for the murderer among a city full of hicks, Tibbs is set upon by hooligans out to "teach him a lesson" and he must fight to keep alive long enough to find the killer.
And after the first time Virgil Tibbs survives a cornering by a bunch of ignorant white Mississippi good ole' boys, we get the point. When he is chased again and again, the viewer just wonders what the writer and director of In The Heat Of The Night were thinking. The whites in the film fill a pretty bland, dumb stereotype of "white trash" and while Gillespie is characterized as incompetent (several of the characters mention this), at least he has a sense of individuality in the film. Most of the rest of the townspeople are just idiotic racists.
And while Tibbs stands with dignity for the educated black man, In The Heat Of The Night is tough to get into for his character . . . outside the novelty of him being a black homicide detective. And having watched years of NYPD Blue, the novelty there is pretty much expired. I understand the historical relevance of it, but in many ways, Tibbs is a very average character other than the social statement he is set up to make. And in revealing his own prejudice (toward Colbert's business competition), the viewer gets one of the few glimpses of real character in the movie. Indeed, when Gillespie observes that Tibbs is just as bad as the rest of us (the white folks in Sparta) as far as prejudice goes, the film's most poignant message is finally realized; whites and blacks are both people and not fundamentally different. Once we get that thesis, you're forced to look at In The Heat Of The Night as the story of smart cop, ignorant cop and the movie is far less engaging.
In The Heat Of The Night is also plagued now by utilizing (possible establishing) almost all of the conceits of a police program. There are the car chases, the red herrings in the investigation and the abrupt turns of fortune that come with the sudden revelations of the real criminals and motives. All that truly separates much of In The Heat Of The Night from an episode of the 1980s show Dukes Of Hazzard is that the hubcaps never come off the cars during the car chases. Cinematically, In The Heat Of The Night uses a lot of the same conceits, though.
While there are a few moments of genuine character, what In The Heat Of The Night has to most enthusiastically recommend it is the acting. Lee Grant gives a decent, if too brief, supporting performance as Mrs. Colbert and Warren Oates is convincingly dim as Sam Wood. Rod Steiger lives up to his reputation as a great actor as Gillespie. He plays the somewhat monolithic role - annoying from the outset with his constant gum-chewing - with a lack of sensibility. Steiger's true acting genius in the film is playing dumb and he does it so well that there are moments when the viewer actually feels bad for the chief of police in how virtually every character has to explain something to him.
Conversely, Sidney Poitier is brilliant in his performance for the embodiment of professionalism and humanity throughout. Virgil Tibbs is characterized as a smart man, who is the consummate professional, but also is something of a fish out of water as a black man in the primarily white South. Poitier has amazing facial expressions and a stare that is intense and disturbing at times. He creates Tibbs as a constantly-thinking character who is clever, articulate and powerful (more than simply in the physical sense). Poitier gives Tibbs an undertone of arrogance so in most of the scenes, he carries himself as a man who clearly knows he is superior to the yokels he is surrounded by, even if he never says so.
On DVD, In The Heat Of The Night comes with a commentary track and while the relevancy of the film is discussed, the filming of it is talked about more and Poitier's absence on the commentary is noticeable. The only other bonus feature on the original DVD release is the theatrical trailer for the film and that's . . . different.
In the end, In The Heat Of The Night is dated and while it is entertaining, it is not entertaining in a timeless way. This works much better as a historical document than it does as a cinematic work. But, at the very least, it works.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, here! Please check it out!]
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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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