In The Heat Of The Night Review
1967 was clearly a good year. The Oscars committee is usually quite conservative in their film choices, but even they saw fit to nominate The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and the eventual winner In The Heat Of The Night for the Best Picture title. Yes, Doctor Dolittle was nominated too, but that was in support of the lengthy budget Fox slapped on the film with little return.
In hindsight, many have argued that the Academy's choice to honour In The Heat Of The Night was more politically motivated as opposed to being cinematically motivated. It was a mainstream Hollywood film that dealt head on with the issues of racism, and you have to consider that the Oscars ceremony was postponed for two days that year because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. In hindsight, In The Heat Of The Night probably isn't as strong as The Graduate or Bonnie & Clyde, but it certainly was just as courageous as these films. Whilst not being the first film to handle racist themes, In The Heat Of The Night gained most of the ground in Hollywood race relations, and not only are its intentions honourable but the film is also a fine mystery thriller too.
The plot is relatively simple, but contains a mass of layers bristling beneath the surface. Set in the Deep South, the film begins with a wealthy businessman found dead lying in the middle of a road in the middle of the night. The on-duty police officers quickly search the night for suspects, and instantly assume they have found their subject when they pick up black man Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) waiting at a station. Virgil has simply been visiting his mother, but the police in their racist beliefs are convinced they have found their man, particularly Chief of Police Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) who is as racist as he is ignorant in local murder investigations. However, the police are dismayed to find out that not only is Virgil innocent, but he is also a police officer himself. In order not to cause incident, Virgil's superiors lend his assistance to the local police, and both Virgil and Gillespie have to overcome their resentment and help each other solve the case.
The chemistry between Poitier and Steiger is so strong that at times it's hard to tell whether it is a demonstration of good acting or actually genuine hatred that the two project towards one another. If the plot sounds familiar, that's because the storyline is basically a retread of The Defiant Ones with the two protagonists transplanted from one side of the law to another. What is so refreshing about the film is its refusal to take the easy way out and solely condemn the white population. Virgil is presented in just as much a prejudiced fashion as Gillespie, and the film is a journey transition in which the two learn to kill their own ignorant preconceptions and look within a man's character as opposed to the superficialities. Here is a film in which a black detective is more intelligent, better dressed and more professional than the white detective who originally arrested him, deeming him to be a suspect. For a film to promote this notion takes tremendous bravery and confidence, and In The Heat Of The Night pulls it off without ever overtly preaching. Indeed, when Virgil turns to Steiger in an argument and reacts with the famous line "They Call Me Mister Tibbs" it's as if the black population are almost revolting against the white's treatment of them for so many years. That line was so important it even became the title of one of the sequels to the film, even if the series had by then treaded down the blaxpoitation path.
Directing wise, Norman Jewison has proved to be one of the best genre directors of all time; selflessly losing his own 'auteur' touches for the sake of a well-told narrative. He clearly knows how to handle such a delicate story matter, and he responds by extracting magnificent performances from his two leads. Yes, Steiger deserved an Oscar for his foul-mouthed performance as Gillespie, but then so did Poitier for his performance as Virgil Tibbs, and it's a crying shame that Poitier wasn't even nominated for his work on the film. The supporting cast is expertly packed with future stars, such as Warren Oates and Lee Grant, and they both add an extra edge to the background elements of the film, particularly Oates' often comical on-screen relationship with Steiger.
Haskell Wexler's cinematography along with Hal Ashby's editing help to elevate the film from stock-mystery to a suspenseful, racial journey to the heart of America's core. The film is often a contrast between the dark and dense night-time sequences and the vividly bright and colourful daytime sequences, as if the daytime society is happy to hide the sinister secrets of its night-time society, in which murder and racial hatred are rampant. This is also corroborated expertly by composer Quincy Jones' score, which flirts between blues and rumbling, late-sixties funk. It often drives the narrative single-handedly, and is typical of the late-sixties.
Often earmarked as a favourite amongst the sixties' generation, In The Heat Of The Night is a film that deserves respect, both for its racial impact on its audience during the social turmoil of America and for its entertaining value as a mystery-thriller. The fact that it contains possibly both Steiger and Poitier's career-best performances is ample reason for everyone to have seen it.
Academy Awards 1967
Best Actor - Rod Steiger
Best Adapted Screenplay - Stirling Silliphant
Best Film Editing - Hal Ashby
Academy Award Nominations 1967
Best Director - Norman Jewison
Best Sound Effects - James Richard
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the film transfer is excellent, complementing the presentation with fine colour tones and splendid light-and-dark contrasts. The print has been cleaned up and contains only a small trace of grain, and only a slight amount of artefacts can be detected.
Presented in the film's original mono soundtrack, In The Heat Of The Night is slightly low in terms of volume level and dialogue is occasionally overshadowed by background elements and hiss, but on the whole the audio mix is presented in fine fashion.
Menu: A decent animated menu consisting of split-screen shots from the film and sound portions over the top.
Packaging: Presented in an amaray packaging as part of MGM's Contemporary Classics range, with an uninspired cover artwork and a four-page booklet with production notes and chapter listings contained inside.
Audio Commentary By Norman Jewison, Rod Steiger, Haskell Wexler & Lee Grant: This is a very enjoyable commentary, with the participants recorded separately and edited together to form one commentary track. Obviously Jewison dominates proceedings, with Wexler and Steiger adding in relevant anecdotes. Grant appears only when her character is on-screen, and so her contribution is limited. It's a pleasure to hear Steiger talk about the methods of his acting, and his experiences on the film, just as much as hearing Jewison mention his angle on directing, or Wexler going technical over his shot composition. Overall, this is a brilliant, balanced commentary track that sits as a nice companion to the film itself, even if Poiter is notable by his absence.
Trailer: This is a very grainy and cropped 1967 trailer for the film that although collectible is presented in a terrible fashion and is barely watchable.
In The Heat Of The Night has been given a decent mid-price treatment by MGM, with a fine commentary and a respectful presentation of the film itself. A proper and lengthy 'making of' documentary is sorely missed, but on the whole this is a worthy DVD of a classic film.