Here's one thing that hasn't changed in the 40 years since the Southern whodunit In the Heat of the Night opened: In 2008, as in 1967, few categories of Hollywood filmmaking are treated with as much condescension as the liberal message movie. Norman Jewison's mystery, in which a bigoted white Mississippi police chief (Rod Steiger) and a fish-out-of-water black Philadelphia cop (Sidney Poitier) find their way toward tentative mutual respect during a murder investigation, first opened in a summer that had been largely defined by explosive race riots in Newark, N.J., and Detroit. In their wake, magazines like Life applauded the movie's optimistic brotherhood-of-man conclusion as "a fine demonstration that races can work together." But other verdicts were disdainful: Andrew Sarris blasted the film as a "fantasy of racial reconciliation,"The New Yorker dismissed its "spurious air of concern about the afflictions of the real America" and its "trite" conclusion that "we are really all the same," and Esquire's Wilfrid Sheed sneered, "[I]f that were all Mississippi amounted to it wouldn't take much courage to march down there."
With condemnations like that, you almost wouldn't know that In the Heat of the Night is a very fine movie, in part because it doesn't try too hard to be a great one. The groan heard from many critics when Jewison's movie unexpectedly grabbed the best picture Oscar from the more innovative, popular, and game-changing Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate wasn't unreasonable. The film's implication that America's racial divide can be healed by two men setting aside their differences to solve a crime does seem a bit pat. But watch the film's new 40th-anniversary DVD and you can't help but wonder whether the movie's detractors were so busy attacking it for being insufficiently down with the revolution that they missed the many smart, specific pleasures that have made this unassuming piece of popular entertainment endure so well.
First, some context: In 1965, the moviegoing landscape was such that, in order to get the film greenlighted, producer Walter Mirisch had to run the numbers and show United Artists that a picture in which Sidney Poitier one-upped a town full of white rubes could make money even if it never opened in a single Southern city. That year, A Patch of Blue had paired the actor in a chaste budding romance with a blind white girl; that film's distributor, MGM, obligingly snipped out a brief interracial kiss from all prints shown below the Mason-Dixon Line. The mere fact that Jewison's movie would be the first to showcase a black detective was newsworthy—especially since the part would be played by Poitier, Hollywood's only black leading man and the great and lonely emblem of the industry's desire to demonstrate its racial progressiveness.
As they worked on the script, Jewison and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant were determined to hew rigorously to the conventions of a murder mystery and to enfold any social commentary within the contours of a genre piece. They did so with admirable skill and leanness. Working from a so-so novel by John Ball, they stripped away pages of explanation and misdirection, redefined the characters, and sharpened the plot. Virgil Tibbs, a deferential, chatty Californian in the book, would now be a taciturn Northern cop passing through this hellish backwater on his way home to civilization. Chief Gillespie, a trim, handsome minor character in the novel, would be expanded, figuratively and literally, into the physical embodiment of the heavy-gutted, black-booted, swaggering redneck sheriff familiar from a decade of indelible news images. And the identity of the murder victim was changed from a concert promoter to a Chicago industrialist striving to bring modernity (in the form of a factory) to a town whose economy was as withered and outdated as its racial attitudes.
The movie's connection between economic deprivation and racism was pretty sophisticated for a Hollywood cop flick and also created a plausible reason for the ultracompetent Tibbs, seething at his own mistreatment, to stay in town: First, the victim's appalled widow (Lee Grant) warns Gillespie that she'll pull her husband's money out of the town and "leave you to yourselves" if the "Negro officer" isn't kept on the case; later, Gillespie baits Tibbs by reminding him that if he doesn't show the white crackers how to solve the crime, "a lot of jobs for a lot of colored people" will vanish.
When In the Heat of the Night began shooting in 1966, it was in Illinois, not Mississippi. Poitier, worried that he'd be a target, flatly refused to shoot in the South; he had been tailed by Klansmen when he had visited Greensboro, N.C., with Harry Belafonte, and a cross had recently been burned on the lawn of his wife's home in Pleasantville, N.Y. He finally agreed to a few days of tense location work in Tennessee, which were cut short when trouble-hunting rednecks drove into the lot of the motel where he was staying (Poitier told Jewison he was sleeping with a gun under his pillow). Though the movie may have seemed a step behind the news to critics in New York, it was undeniably of its moment in much of the rest of the country.
Jewison, a proud bleeding heart whose pictures range from A Soldier's Story to The Hurricane, isn't often thought of as a particularly visual director, so it's heartening to revisit In the Heat of the Night and discover the elegance and shot-for-shot storytelling skill of its camerawork. Great credit belongs to cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who, working in color for the first time, created a palette of shadows and scrub, parched earth, menacing inky corners, and glowing red lights of danger, which did much to define the richly gloomy look of American films of the following decade. And editor Hal Ashby, an Oscar winner for this movie, helped Jewison streamline his story to the point where there's scarcely a wasted gesture or indulgent moment. At 110 minutes, In the Heat of the Night is a model of concision, and one of the shortest best picture winners of the last 50 years.
To Jewison's credit, there are no scenes in which the story stops dead to make a point about racism. Instead, the themes assert themselves in every crosswise glance and smirk, and in the wary strength with which Tibbs holds himself rigid in the presence of white strangers. That said, some of Jewison's motifs resonated in 1967 in a way that is hard to imagine today. Watch how his camera follows Poitier's hands throughout the movie, lingering every time they touch white skin. As Tibbs works over the victim's corpse, palpating his palms and feet with clinical detachment, we can feel the sense of affront from the white onlookers around the makeshift morgue slab—and we can feel Tibbs feeling it. When Tibbs examines the fingers and forearms of a handcuffed murder suspect (a moment that, for 1967 audiences, might have evoked memories of Poitier chained to Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones), we can intuit the white man's bred-in-the-bone humiliation giving way to self-interest as he realizes that Tibbs might help him.
Jewison's attention to the metaphorical power of physical black-skin-on-white-skin contact leads to two defining shots: One is the riveting moment in which the racist cotton-plantation magnate Endicott (Dick Cheney look-alike Larry Gates) slaps Tibbs in the face after a question he deems impertinent and Tibbs instantly returns the slap with a backhand of his own. The speed, the force, and the utter sangfroid of that second slap made it a milestone in the history of black representation in Hollywood cinema, triggering what Renata Adler termed "belligerent applause" from black and white audiences alike.
The other is the scene that concludes the movie, in which Tibbs' hand clasps Gillespie's, a moment of ambivalent entente between the two men. Audiences loved that wrap-up; many critics deplored it. It's wasn't so much the happyish ending that bothered them. The bigger problem was the suggestion that both men had to overcome issues of mistrust and pride to find their way home. By 1967, critics—and many moviegoers—were ready to see Sidney Poitier teach a lesson without having to learn one himself. In 1967, Poitier became the biggest box-office star in the country. A generation of teenagers fell for him as a crush-worthy high-school teacher in To Sir, With Love, and middle America beamed approvingly as he paid his respects to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy while romancing their daughter in the blockbuster Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a film with far less defensible racial politics, then or now.
Steiger got the best actor Oscar for his masterful, Method deep-dive portrayal of Gillespie, a man just smart enough to know he's neither as talented as Tibbs nor as ignorant as the people around him. His jaw always working a wad of gum, his beady eyes darting, his blood pressure stroke-level as he spits out orders, he manages to play big without ever splitting the seams of his character. Witness his long, mute, complicated reaction when he learns that the black man who's been hauled into his station on suspicion of murder is a cop, and you'll see an actor in full control of his instrument, even in silence. Poitier later wrote that watching Steiger do his thing helped to teach him, after 15 years in the business, what screen acting could be, and he responded with a performance in which he used his natural gift for repressed rage and self-control in the face of hostility to the greatest effect of his career. It's beautiful teamwork, on and behind the camera, and a reminder that after all these years, there's still one thing that can redeem even liberal message movies: They just have to be really good.