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In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night(1967)

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teaser In the Heat of the Night (1967)


When a Chicago businessman is murdered in sleepy Sparta, MS, local police chief Ben Gillespie is under pressure to solve the case quickly. But his first suspect, a black man caught leaving town at the local train station, turns out to be Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective passing through after visiting his mother. Things heat up further for Gillespie when Tibbs's police chief and the victim's widow insist he stay to help with the case. Before long, Tibbs is schooling Gillespie in modern police methods and schooling the town in how to deal with a proud, capable black man who refuses to accept second-class citizen status.CAST AND CREW

Director: Norman Jewison
Producer: Walter Mirisch
Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant
Based on the novel by John Ball
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Editing: Hal Ashby
Art Direction: Paul Groesse
Music: Quincy Jones
Cast: Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs), Rod Steiger (Chief Gillespie), Warren Oates (Sam Wood), Lee Grant (Mrs. Colbert), Larry Gates (Endicott), James Patterson (Mr. Purdy), William Schallert (Mayor Schubert), Beah Richards (Mama Caleba), Scott Wilson (Harvey Oberst)
C-109 m.

OVERVIEWReleased in the summer of 1967, shortly after race riots in Newark, NJ, and Detroit, In the Heat of the Night galvanized racial tensions in the United States as few films had done previously. Not only did the film score at the box office with an African-American actor in the leading role, but also it was one of the first to depict an African-American character who refused to back down in the face of racism. When local business leader Endicott slapped Virgil Tibbs, only for Tibbs to hit him back, progressive audiences around the nation cheered.

The role of Virgil Tibbs helped to crystalize Sidney Poitier's image as a proud, capable black man standing up to racism and outsmarting white society. Released in the same year as his To Sir, with Love and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner it made him the focal point in discussions of Hollywood's treatment of race. In some quarters, he was praised for his integrity in insisting on roles that defied the old stereotypes; in others he was derided for creating a new stereotype, the super-black man.

In the Heat of the Night is Poitier's personal favorite of the 55 films he has made to date.

After a string of comedies (with the exception of 1965's The Cincinnati Kid, on which he was a last minute fill-in for fired director Sam Peckinpah), Norman Jewison moved into the front rank of serious Hollywood directors because of his work on this film.

Haskell Wexler was the first color cinematographer on a major studio release to design his lighting to flatter an African-American. Previous films had used too much light, which creates a glare on black skin, but Wexler kept the light levels down. This helped contribute to Poitier's emergence in the late '60s as a matinee idol.

By Frank Miller

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teaser In the Heat of the Night (1967)

The battle for Civil Rights was still raging during the preparation and filming of In the Heat of the Night. In 1965, the year Mirisch started working on the production, the march on Selma, AL, had galvanized the Hollywood community in support of the movement. The same year, the Watts riots brought to the front the grievances of African-Americans living in the inner city.

Race continued in the news as the film opened in August 1967. In the months prior to its premiere, race riots had shaken Newark, NJ, and Detroit, bringing heightened awareness to the rise of a militant element with African-American politics.

In September 1967, the Sunday New York Times carried an article by African-American playwright Clifford Mason called "Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?" The article belittled Poitier's roles and attacked the actor as an Uncle Tom and predicted that the actor had been typecast as the black man who was "nonplussed by white arrogance...but, because of his innate goodness, finally [makes] that fateful decision to solve the problems for 'them'..." (Mason, quoted in Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution). Poitier would later say the article started a rash of criticism of his roles that eventually led to his box-office decline.

With the help of Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night editor Hal Ashby eventually broke into directing with The Landlord (1970). Subsequent films would include Harold and Maude (1971), Shampoo (1975) and Being There (1979).

Rod Steiger's success in the film only brought him one film offer, but it was a good one. Unfortunately, he turned down the chance to play the title role in Patton (1970), a decision he would regret the rest of his life.

U.S. politics in the '60s so upset Jewison, particularly with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, that he moved his family to Europe. He remained an in-demand director, with Oscar® nominations for Fiddler on the Roof (1971), A Soldier's Story (1984) and Moonstruck (1987).

In 1969, In the Heat of the Night was adapted to the stage in the Soviet Union. The adaptor added a scene at the end in which Tibbs boards the train home only to be forced to ride in the section reserved for black people.

Following up on the success of In the Heat of the Night, Poitier starred as police detective Virgil Tibbs in two more films. They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) transplanted the action to San Francisco, where Tibbs tries to clear the name of a crusading street preacher accused of murdering a prostitute. In The Organization (1971) he clears a revolutionary group of murder charges associated with their break-in at a powerful corporation. Both films co-star Barbara McNair as his wife.

Poitier's line "They call me MR. Tibbs!" has become iconic, landing at number 16 in the American Film Institute's poll to name the 100 greatest movie quotes. It is quoted or paraphrased in five episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and paraphrased by Pumbaa in The Lion King (1994) as "They call me MR. pig!"

In 1988, NBC debuted a television series based on the film starring Carroll O'Connor as Chief Gillespie and Howard Rollins as Virgil Tibbs, who takes over as Chief of Detectives in Sparta. The show ran on NBC until 1992, when it switched to CBS for its final two seasons, followed by four television movies that ran in 1994 and 1995. In the last season, Tibbs became a lawyer and only appeared on the series sporadically. Gillespie was named County Sheriff, with his job as Sparta Police Chief taken over by Hampton Forbes, played by Carl Weathers.

MGM restored the film's print in 1998. The work was supervised by Michael Friend, the archivist at the Motion Picture Academy®.

In the Heat of the Night was voted a place on the National Film Registry in 2002.

By Frank Miller

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teaser In the Heat of the Night (1967)

The greenhouse was added to the Dyersberg, TN, house used for Endicott's home for the production. It cost $15,000 to fill it with orchids.

It only took two takes to get the slapping scene. Director Norman Jewison insisted that Larry Gates slap him first to make sure he would slap hard enough. Jewison didn't want Poitier to hold anything back when slapping Gates, only warning him not to hit him on the ear. For his part, Gates encouraged Poitier to hit him as hard as he wanted.

When Poitier told Jewison of almost being killed by Klansmen in Mississippi, he mentioned the night he was driving on a country road when a car pulled up behind him and started running into his bumper. Jewison had Silliphant add a similar scene to the film.

Illinois locals hired as extras were paid $1.50 a day.

Poitier and Silliphant disagree over whether Tibbs' slapping Endicott was in the shooting script. Silliphant insists it was, but Poitier states that he had it added during shooting and made Jewison guarantee it would stay in the final print. According to Mark Harris, who wrote of the film in his Pictures at a Revolution, the slaps were always in the screenplay.

Lee Grant's ex-husband, writer Albert Manoff, had died a year before her work on the film, so shooting scenes as the murder victim's grieving widow was a very emotional experience for her. She always credited Poitier with helping her get through those moments.

To get an appropriately gritty effect as dogs chase Scott Wilson's character through the woods, cinematographer Haskell Wexler knelt on a specially constructed wooden platform as crew members ran alongside Wilson. Occasionally tree branches and other foliage slapped into Wexler as he shot.

At the end of one chase scene, Wexler used a rapid zoom in, which created a grainy, documentary-style effect. The rapid zoom would become a mainstay of '70s filmmaking.

Jewison and Wexler chose amber sunglasses for Steiger because they felt the color was the most threatening. They also made his eyes more visible than darker lenses might have.

For the song Ralph Henshaw dances to, Jewison wanted to use Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs' "Lil' Red Riding Hood," which was played for actor Anthony James when the scene was shot. When United Artists couldn't get the rights to that song, Quincy Jones wrote "Foul Owl on the Prowl," recorded by Boomer & Travis.


"What's a northern boy like you doing all the way down here?" - Rod Steiger, as Chief Gillespie, questioning Sidney Poitier, as Virgil Tibbs."I got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead." - Steiger, as Chief Gillespie."They call me MISTER Tibbs!" - Poitier, as Virgil Tibbs, delivering the films most famous lines."I do want to thank you for offering such a powerful piece of manpower as Virgil Tibbs." - Steiger, as Gillespie, on the phone with Poitier's boss. "I came by to make it as clear as I possibly can: that I do not want the Negro officer taken off this case...If it wasn't for him, your impartial chief of police would still have the wrong man behind bars. I want that officer given a free hand, otherwise I will pack up my husband's engineers and leave you to yourselves." - Lee Grant, as Mrs. Colbert

"Just once in my life, I'm gonna own my temper. I'm telling you that you're gonna stay here. You're gonna stay here if I have to go inside and call your chief of police and have him remind you of what he told you to do. But I don't think I have to do that, you see? No, because you're so damn smart. You're smarter than any white man. You're just gonna stay here and show us all. You've got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don't think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by." - Steiger

"What you doin' here, man."
"You're a policeman here in Sparta."
"They've got a murder they don't know what to do with. They need a whipping boy."
"You got a roof.""No, I'll find a motel.""(Taking his suitcase Viola...We got company." - Khalil Bezaleel, as Jess, welcoming Poitier to town

"Got no more smile than a turnip." - Scott Wilson, as Harvey Oberst, describing Steiger

"Now listen, hear me, good mama. Please. Don't make me have to send you to jail...There's white time in jail and there's colored time in jail. The worst kind of time you can do is colored time." - Poitier, as Tibbs, to Beah Richards, as Mama Caleba

"Last Chief we had...he'd have shot Tibbs one second after he slapped Endicott, claim self-defense." - William Schallert, as Mayor Schubert

"Thirty-seven years old, no wife, no kids...scratching for a living in a town doesn't want me. Fan I have to oil for myself...desk with a busted leg...this place. Know something, Virgil? You're the first person who's been around to call. Nobody else has been here...nobody comes." - Steiger, welcoming Poitier to his home

"You take care, y'hear?"
policeman here in Sparta."'

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teaser In the Heat of the Night (1967)

John Ball's novel In the Heat of the Night (1965) was the first of seven to depict the exploits of Pasadena police detective Virgil Tibbs. Set in Wells, SC, it follows his uneasy alliance with local police chief Bill Gillespie in the investigation of a murder for which he originally was arrested simply for being black. Ball got the idea for the novel in 1933, but didn't get it written until 1960. Then it took him five years to get it published.

Independent producer Walter Mirisch bought the screen rights to the novel in 1966, but initially had trouble convincing his usual studio, United Artists, to back the film for fear it would be banned in Southern states. By using some fancy accounting tricks, he finally convinced that if he kept the budget down it would turn a profit even if it never played down South.

As the first African-American actor to win the Oscar® for Best Actor and the only African-American considered to be a marquee name, Sidney Poitier was the only choice to play Virgil Tibbs.

Mirisch's first choice to adapt the novel was television writer Robert Alan Aurthur, whose teleplay A Man Is Ten Feet Tall had been such a big success on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1955 it was filmed as Edge of the City two years later. Poitier had starred in both versions. Unfortunately, his initial attempts at a screenplay for In the Heat of the Night did not meet Mirisch's approval, and he was let go.

Poitier's agent, Martin Baum, then suggested Stirling Silliphant, a prolific television writer often hailed as the next Paddy Chayefsky. Silliphant's TV commitments were so great that he had only had time to write two films, Village of the Damned (1960) and The Slender Thread (1965). The latter had starred Poitier, and though it had failed at the box office, the star was sufficiently impressed with Silliphant's work to want him for this new film.

In translating the novel to the screen, Silliphant transformed Tibbs from the polite, friendly Californian originally created into a hard-nosed, proud Northern black from Philadelphia. Part of that was a concession to Poitier's screen image. The actor had risen in popularity because of his ability to capture characters smoldering under the weight of racism. By contrast, the original Tibbs simply accepted it on the rare occasions it occurred in the novel, in which the sheriff and his men and even the town boss, Endicott, are all open-minded individuals who treat him as an equal. Gillespie, a minor character in the novel and originally an open-minded newcomer to his job, was transformed into a major character, a veteran officer struggling to reconcile his own racism with the need to work with the black detective. He also transformed the novel's murder victim from a concert promoter to an industrialist trying to bring a factory to the small town, which would rejuvenate it economically. Filling the supporting cast with racists, particularly Endicott, completed the story's transformation from standard detective fiction to civil-rights parable.

Norman Jewison had started his career directing variety shows for television, most notably The Judy Garland Show. He broke into film as a comedy director with pictures like 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), with Tony Curtis, and The Thrill of It All (1963), with Doris Day. After stepping in at the last minute to take over The Cincinnati Kid (1965) when Sam Peckinpah was fired after only four days of shooting, he landed a two-film deal with Mirisch. Their first film together, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), may have marked a return to comedy, but it also satirized the Cold War. Hoping to establish himself as a more serious director, however, he began campaigning to direct In the Heat of the Night. At first, Mirisch tired to talk him out of it, arguing that the low-budget film would be a comedown for him. When Jewison agreed to shoot it at the Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood, he won the job.

In Silliphant's first draft, Gillespie was a tall, good-looking man introduced stepping out of his shower. Through re-writes, he was changed to a heavyweight, aging man more in keeping with the images of Southern sheriffs playing out on news reports about the civil rights movement. Jewison's first choice to play Gillespie was George C. Scott. When the actor was tied up with work on The Flim-Flam Man (1967), the director considered Lawrence Tierney but eventually turned to Rod Steiger.

Poitier signed to make the film for $200,000. Steiger received $100,000.

When The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming became a big hit, Jewison used his new clout to convince Mirisch to let him film In the Heat of the Night on location. Originally, he wanted to shoot it in Mississippi. Poitier, however, had almost been killed by the Ku Klux Klan while visiting that state with Harry Belafonte, so he insisted they shoot in the North. Location scouts found the town of Sparta, IL, and writer Stirling Silliphant changed the film's location from Wells to Sparta, so they would not have to change local signs.

The decision to use Sparta's name in the film was mainly financial. Jewison planned the production to keep costs down as much as possible. That included using lesser-known actors in the supporting cast. Jewison was ready to offer a contract to former child actor Robert Blake to play Harvey Oberst, the chief suspect in the case, when the casting director brought in Scott Wilson, who had never made a film before. Several other players had worked with casting director Lynn Stalmaster in television, including William Schallert, Anthony James and Warren Oates.

The best-known supporting player at the time was Lee Grant, cast as the victim's wife. She had recently won an Emmy for her performance on Peyton Place, her first major role since being blacklisted a decade earlier. Jewison insisted on casting her because her career had been stalled for so long by the blacklist. It was her first Hollywood film since 1959's Middle of the Night.

By Frank Miller

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teaser In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In 1967 it was not only unusual to have a non-white actor in a leading role; it was nearly unheard of. In The Heat of the Night's gamble paid off, though, when the film brought home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Film Editing and Best Screenplay. The story of a big-city black detective stumbling into a murder case in a sleepy Southern town brought together an unusually rich collection of talent. Rod Steiger was a graduate of New York's Actors Studio and one of the earliest students of Method acting, while Sidney Poitier had broken ground with roles that no African-American actor had taken on before. The chemistry between the two onscreen was sharp and complex, while still confined to the framework of a mystery/police procedural.

In his autobiography, My Life, Poitier recalls his experience with Steiger playing Police Chief Bill Gillespie; "On weekends when we ventured out to a movie or dinner, he would remain completely immersed in the character of the Southern sheriff - he spoke with the same accent and walked with the same gait, on and off camera. I was astonished at the intensity of his involvement with the character."

In the Heat Of The Night fit in well with the canons of screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, director Jewison and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Silliphant went on to pen the poignant Charly (1968) and another racially-tinged drama, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970). Wexler brought a harsh, realistic look to films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and documentaries like No Nukes (1980), later working on such socially-conscious fare as Matewan (1987) and Coming Home (1978). With In The Heat of the Night's performances and screenplay drawing so much of the viewer's attention, Wexler's camera work almost takes a backseat, but his shot compositions and angles complement the movie's mood perfectly.

Shot in the small towns of Dyersburg, Tennessee and Freeburg, Belleville, and Sparta, Illinois, In The Heat of the Night had the perfect atmosphere of a stifling rural town in the South, the type of place where every newcomer is eyed with suspicion. Quincy Jones' rootsy, innovative score mingled elements of country blues, bluegrass and rock to evoke the languid tension of the town perfectly.

Tibbs posed several problems to the locals, not only as an outsider and a black man; his knowledge of police work and forensics threatened to embarrass the local police and make them look like backwoods hicks. It would have been easy to make Gillespie's character a stereotypical, loudmouthed Southern bigot, but screenwriter Sterling Silliphant imbued him with much more depth than that. By the same turn, Tibbs is shown to be a flawed man as well, with his own pride and cleverness often getting in his way. As the film unfolds, Gillespie and Tibbs slowly come to the realization that they have more in common than they'd like to admit, and even begin to develop a grudging respect for each other. Thus, a movie that could easily have become obvious and heavy-handed is instead a subtle, character-driven gem.

Producer: Walter Mirisch
Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Costume Design: Alan Levine
Film Editing: Hal Ashby
Original Music: Quincy Jones
Principal Cast: Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs), Rod Steiger (Police Chief Bill Gillespie), Warren Oates (Deputy Sam Wood), Lee Grant (Mrs. Leslie Colbert), Larry Gates (Eric Endicott), James Patterson (Mr. Purdy), William Schallert (Mayor Schubert), Beah Richards (Mama Caleba), Matt Clark (Packy).
C-110m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jerry Renshaw

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