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.