“Now, look. I got no wife. I got no kids. Boy, I got a town that don’t want me. And I got an air conditioner that I have to oil myself, and a desk with a busted leg. And on top of that, I got this, uh… place. Now, don’t you think that’d drive a man to takin’ a few drinks? I’ll tell you a secret. Nobody comes here. Never.”
‘In the Heat of the Night’, directed by Norman Jewison in 1967, is an American crime drama starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from Philadelphia who finds himself helping to solve a murder in Sparta, Mississippi. Tibbs runs up against the endemic racism that exists in the town, not least from Police Chief Bill Gillespie (played by Steiger). Gradually, Tibbs uncovers the truth and, at the same time, slowly gains the trust and taciturn respect of Gillespie and his fellow officers. It’s a narrative that has two distinct threads: the murder, the red herring of which is the fact that Tibbs is initially suspected of the crime by being a stranger and black, and the racism Tibbs encounters. Both plots are masterfully told, and both influence the other, so the whodunit aspect of the murder is fed by the undercurrent of violent bigotry in the town. The film is sold by Poitier and Steiger’s performances though. Tibbs is portrayed as a quiet, serious stoic, capable of anger, but a controlled, measured anger. Gillespie is the polar opposite of Tibbs: nervy, twitchy and splenetic. Of the two, Poitier’s performance is the more subtle, but Steiger’s is the greatest physical transformation. Gillespie struts around the town, sweating and bulging, his mouth constantly chewing gum, whilst Tibbs is buttoned-up, smart and impassive. The two make a compelling if unsettling double act as they find themselves welded together by the need to solve the murder. The main aftertaste of ‘In the Heat of the Night’ is the same as that of Alan Parker’s 1988 movie ‘Mississippi Burning’, a feeling that the south is somehow a foreign country at odds with the rest of America. It’s a disturbing presentation of rural America and the eccentrics who live there, that doesn’t go as far as John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’, but has a similar effect.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s an award winning movie with two epic performances that seeks to expose and, to a degree, unpack the racism that divided the nation. Watch in a double bill with ‘Killer of Sheep’ for a different perspective on race in America.