“They call me Mr. Tibbs!” [what else could the charge be?]
John Ball’s novel “In the Heat of the Night” was published in 1965 and received strong critical and popular acceptance. It went on to receive an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and was translated extensively. The idea for the story had actually first occurred to Ball in 1932. Feeling that the time was not right and unsure of his own ability to do the idea justice, however, he put the idea aside for over 30 years.
With the success of the novel, film rights were snapped up by producer Walter Mirisch. Armed with a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, Mirisch was able to interest Norman Jewison in directing. Soon thereafter, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger were cast in the lead roles. The film, released in 1967 by United Artists, was an instant success and went on to win five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor [Steiger], Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Editing).
MGM Home Entertainment has now brought In the Heat of the Night to DVD as part of its Contemporary Classics series.
A Northern businessman, Philip Colbert, is found murdered on the streets of Sparta, Mississippi by Deputy Sam Wood. Police Chief Bill Gillespie orders Wood to search the town for any potential suspects. At the train station, Wood finds a well-dressed young black man in the waiting room and quickly decides that he has his man. Once back at the police station, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the suspect is not the murderer at all. He’s a homicide police officer from Philadelphia named Virgil Tibbs, returning there after a visit with his mother.
Colbert’s wife Leslie, upon learning of her husband’s death from Gillespie, soon realizes that the best chance for any real solution to the murder is to demand Tibbs’s involvement, as the Sparta police seem unlikely to be able to handle the job themselves. Gillespie is at first reluctant to have Tibbs’s assistance, but he gradually comes to realize that Tibbs is much more competent to handle such a case than he is. Gradually a grudging respect develops between the two men as they get closer to the solution.
One can argue whether In the Heat of the Night was the best picture of 1967 — after all, that was the year of Bonnie and Clyde (WB) and The Graduate (UA) — but there is no denying that it is still a worthy choice. Certainly when one talks of the great films of Hollywood’s second golden age of the late 1960s to mid-1970s, In the Heat of the Night is among them. Its success is attributable to the calibre of the work both in front of and behind the camera, and to its timeliness. In regard to the latter, I suspect the transformation of the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie reflected to some extent what people were experiencing in towns across America at the time and continue to do so to this day. That’s why the film struck a nerve then, yet seems undated almost 35 years later.
Director Norman Jewison brought two key things to the film — pacing and visual detail. The first half of In the Heat of the Night proceeds at a leisurely pace, as the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie is allowed to develop methodically through verbal interaction between the two. Notice particularly the scene on the railway station platform in which Gillespie manages to persuade Tibbs to stay on the case. Jewison allows the actors to set the tone through long takes rather than forcing the scene through rapid cuts. Once it’s clear that Tibbs and Gillespie are now on the same page, Jewison steps up the pace noticeably with the action of the car chase, factory confrontation, and the final resolution. Interspersed in all this are evocative touches that provide stark reminders of the past — the cotton fields and workers picking cotton; the southern mansion with its white overseer, black staff and welcoming black jockey figurine; and the Confederate flag license plates that seem to adorn the cars of every redneck.
The cast of In the Heat of the Night is uniformly excellent. Rod Steiger is a standout as Gillespie, even though his performance is over-the-top at times. It’s easy to downgrade his efforts nowadays, but the degree to which this sort of role has become stereotyped owes much to the image that Steiger presented — the beefy figure with the big gut hanging over the belt, the amber sunglasses, the constant gum-chewing. He is ably matched by Sidney Poitier who gives a quieter but steely performance as Tibbs. Despite extreme provocation, he never gives any impression that he going to be cowed by any of the men who try to put him in what they see as his place. Particularly striking is the meeting between Tibbs and Endicott, the old-school owner of the cotton plantation who is a suspect in the murder investigation. Endicott still likes to believe he exists in the days of the master-slave relationship between whites and blacks, but he is rudely awakened when he slaps Tibbs and immediately gets slapped back. It’s an exchange that was to some extent improvised by Poitier as the scene developed. Warren Oates and Lee Grant very ably handle the secondary roles of Deputy Wood and Leslie Colbert respectively. Grant, who would later win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Shampoo (1975, Columbia), brings a depth of understanding to the part of the recently widowed wife. (She reflects most interestingly on this during the DVD’s audio commentary.) Finally, a tip-of-the-hat for a familiar face, if not name — William Schallert — who plays Sparta’s small-town mayor Webb Schubert to perfection.
MGM has provided us with a great-looking disc of In the Heat of the Night. It’s presented in anamorphic widescreen preserving the 1.85:1 original aspect ratio with 16 scene selections. The image is in very good shape — sharp with excellent shadow detail and just the odd hint of film grain in some of the nighttime scenes. There is the occasional scratch and instance of softness, but edge enhancement is minimal and colours are quite accurately rendered throughout. The audio is mono and does the job just fine at reasonable amplification for what is a dialogue-driven film. Quincy Jones’s score and Ray Charles’s singing, which are both definite assets to the film, suffer little from the lack of a more elaborate sound mix.
A terrific audio commentary is included featuring Norman Jewison, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The individuals’ comments were recorded separately and then edited together. Failing all the people on the commentary being recorded together as they react, this is a model of what a commentary should be, with the speakers using what’s on the screen as cues to explain the hows and whys or as jumping-off points to provide related information. It’s particularly interesting to hear Steiger’s reaction to some of Jewison’s memories. Also included are a rather beaten-up full-frame theatrical trailer and a four-page booklet providing some production background.
As far as the film itself is concerned, I found the actual resolution of the murder to be a little muddled. This results from rushing the ending somewhat. That’s a shame after so much care was taken to build up the atmosphere and the relationships during the first three-quarters of the film.
I was also disappointed that Sidney Poitier was not a participant in the audio commentary. I suspect his comments could have been most interesting, given some of the thoughts and recollections about Sidney by the four that did participate. More generally, I would have anticipated an even more comprehensive package of supplements for a best-picture-of-the-year, but MGM is not alone in this sort of treatment. At least we have a worthy commentary.
One of the top films of the 1960s with a slew of fine performances; a fine effort by MGM on the DVD particularly in light of all the bad press they tend to get lately for their DVD releases; a tremendous audio commentary; nicely priced at $19.98…You don’t have to think too much about this one! Highly recommended.