WolfmanOz at the Movies #61

They call me Mr. Tibbs !

Was the defiant response by Sidney Poitier’s character policeman Virgil Tibbs to the aggressive and racist police chief of Sparta, Mississippi, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger in his Oscar winning Best Actor role) in the timeless mystery drama classic In The Heat Of The Night released in 1967 and directed by Norman Jewison.

The film tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi.

After the murder victim is discovered, Tibbs is arrested at the train station as he had a fat wallet and is accused of murder until Tibbs reveals he is a top homicide detective.

Frustrated by the ineptitude of the local police but impressed by Tibbs, the murdered man’s widow threatens to halt construction of the factory unless Tibbs leads the investigation, so the town’s leading citizens are forced to comply with her demand.

Tibbs initially suspects the murderer is plantation owner Endicott, a genteel racist and one of the town’s most powerful citizens, who publicly opposed the murdered man’s new factory. When Tibbs interrogates him, Endicott slaps him in the face. Tibbs slaps him back.

What becomes apparent whilst watching the movie is that the murder mystery actually takes a back seat to the interplay and development of the two main characters; and what two characters we have which are both superbly played by Poitier and Steiger.

Tibbs comes across as a rather arrogant and, initially, a dislikable character which adds to the tension between the two, and we also see the development of Gillespie from a loud redneck racist to a man who appreciates and comes to admire Tibbs as he gradually puts his prejudices away. Steiger’s performance is an absolute master class and was fully deserving of the many awards he won for that role.

In contrast to other films of the 1960s like The Chase and Hurry Sundown, which offered confused visions of the South, In The Heat Of The Night depicted a tough, edgy vision of a Southern town that seemed to hate outsiders more than itself, a theme reflecting the uncertain mood of the time, just as the civil rights movement was attempting to take hold. Director Norman Jewison wanted to tell an anti-racist story of a white man and a black man working together in spite of their difficulties.

Almost everything in this movie is superbly done; from the sharply drawn minor characters, the careful plotting, the timing of each scene’s setting, mood and dialogue.

IMO it’s one of the finest films from the 1960s.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . Queen of Diamonds.