Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Forty


#40 — In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)
It can be tricky to watch older films, especially those that claim to deliver enlightened social commentary. The intervening years can impose a mustiness on the politics, the once daring and pointed attacks against ugly social norms rendered quaint or, even worse, patronizing. In particular, the nineteen-sixties was filled with films that responded to the seismically important Civil Rights Movement by showcasing blandly noble black characters, just biding their time through all manner of indignities until the third act opportunity to deliver a monologue about worth and equality. I must admit the first time I saw In the Heat of the Night, many years after the fact, I assumed that was exactly the sort of experience I was setting myself up for, the film’s status as the recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture only strengthening my certainty that it was probably overly stiff and earnest in the way only Hollywood could pull off.

Set in Mississippi, the film focuses on a small town murder investigation undertaken by police Chief Bill Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger. When his men detain a black man passing through town, assuming he’s surely up to no good on the basis of little more than the color of his skin, Gillespie finds himself with an unlikely partner in the detective work because this visitor happens to be a skilled homicide detective from Philadelphia. As this man notably declares at one point, he prefers to be addressed as Mr. Tibbs. As played by Sidney Poitier, he’s a man of fierce intelligence and a barely contained fury. There’s pride there, but also strength, his displayed level of wherewithal flooding away any dramatic piety.

Good as Poitier is, the film truly belongs to Steiger, and he won a justly deserved Best Actor Oscar. Naturally gruff, Steiger surely knew he could have played this southern police officer in a wholly predictable way and it would be effective enough. Instead, he takes a far craftier approach, always seeming to play moments just a shade or two off of expectations. The performance could have been defined by showboating bluster. Instead, it’s the moments when he withdraws a bit that impress the most, indicating a man prepared to ruminate rather than react, perfectly forecasting the evolution he’ll go through in his appraisal of Virgil Tibbs.

Norman Jewison’s sympathies couldn’t be clearer in the film and yet he doesn’t slip into didactic storytelling. By developing a honest focus that shifts subtly and comfortably between the procedural pursuit of the murderer and the relationship between two law enforcement professionals, Jewison finds a way to make the broader points about the precarious nature of race relations at the time into the flavor of the film and not its monotonous point. He knows that by developing the film’s narrative with a respect for the integrity of the place and the people, the points will come through clearly enough. An unexpected slap across the face has been used as a reductive exemplification of the vision behind In the Heat of the Night for decades, probably ever since it opened. It’s a great scene, but there’s a whole film that that strikes just as hard.

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