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,In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night

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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