Norman Jewison’s eventual Best Picture winner in 1968, In the Heat of the Night, is a film operating two simple and distinct channels concurrently. Working from John Ball’s novel of the same name, the film in one channel is a procedural crime drama, an old fashioned murder mystery, and in the other, a timely commentary on racial tensions in America’s south, a companion to the apprehension which met the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Both anchored in the relationship of detective Virgil Tibbs and police chief Bill Gillespie (Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger), the two stories envelop and play off one another in a fantastically taut screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, with he and Jewison approaching the film’s elements with great subtlety and quiet poignancy.
The plot concerns the murder of entrepreneur Phillip Colbert whose new factory promises some desperately needed prosperity for the fictional and smouldering town of Sparta, Mississippi. Given the profile of the victim, his death must be met with swift action, and as an unfamiliar black man passing through the racist town, Virgil Tibbs is the obvious culprit. He is promptly taken in and attributed blame by arresting Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) and Police Chief Gillespie only to quickly redden their faces, revealing himself to be not only an innocent passerby on route to see his mother, but also Philadelphia’s top homicide expert, a revered detective in his own right.
Poitier carries himself with a powerful dignity and magnetism as Tibbs. Before he speaks a word, seeing Virgil sit cross legged in a train station there is no doubt as to his status as a man. His is a domineering presence, and he wears and defies the collective hatred of an entire town with a combination of pride and disgust. Gillespie on the other hand is a boisterous presence. The Police Chief obnoxiously chews his gum like a metronome dictating the pace of each scene, a hot headed cop agonisingly choking down each gulp of pride as he is outwitted by Virgil over and again. Rod Steiger plays Gillespie in his Oscar winning role and brilliantly underpins the angry and macho exterior of his character with the faintest sense of vulnerability as the two men come to realise that they are not merely the two sides of the one coin, they are the same side of the one coin.
What is so effective about the relationship is the irony Jewison and Silliphant bring to it. Following some sharp and accurate deductions of his own on the case, Tibbs is requested to stay on by the wife of Colbert, threatening to pull the plug on her husband’s factory if not, and Tibbs and Gillespie are thrust together to solve the case, the film becoming a not-so-buddy cop drama.
In their dealings together Tibbs and Gillespie are able to see each other with a clarity that neither man can see themselves, allowing them to reveal and strip away their mutual faults. Unlike Poitier’s role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, released later that same year, his character here is not an idyllic one. Virgil relishes flexing his intellect, the temptation of undermining the officers of Sparta all the minor incentive required to draw him into the case, like a bull to the red flag of superiority. In this respect Jewison approaches the key theme of racism with a unique even handedness. The quality of being prejudice does not itself discriminate, something which Tibbs must confront as he and Gillespie navigate the hateful town, from the hopelessly racist plantation owner Eric Endicott, to Tibbs’ own temporary colleagues, and naturally, each other.
The relentlessly simmering tensions in the film are slyly captured by the scorched photography of Haskell Wexler, the films colour pallet singed into a burnt out brown as both the films key dichotomies, the parallel stories of racism and murder, and the two officers on the case, brilliantly entwine and enhance one another into becoming a gripping crime thriller and a thought provoking social play respectively.
Jewison finds the perfect middle ground with his film. In the Heat of the Night is a character study, an analysis of two polar opposites converging, and Jewison crafts the relationship with an artistic deft touch. With its sharp script and equally sharp performances the film satisfies both of its channels without sanctimony or contrivance, the interactions of Tibbs and Gillespie at the centre of it all, bearing all the emotional weight one could want without it ever overstating its claims.