Black and White Murder
In the Heat of the Night is directed by Norman Jewison and stars Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. It is based on the novel of the same name by John Ball and was the basis for a TV series adaptation of the same name. The film won five Oscars, one being Rod Steiger winning the Academy Award for Best Actor.
A healthy share of the now ninety films to win the Best Picture Oscar can be appropriately regarded as message movies, movies containing a message that comments on any specific economic, social, or religious concern going on in the world, particularly one that's going on at the time of the film's release. One of the first of these message movies that ought to come to mind is 1967's In the Heat of the Night, a movie tackling racism and pretty much anything having to do with racial oppression. It would be quite easy to dismiss In the Heat of the Night as just another dated, product-of-its-time film, having been released during the late stages of the 20th Century American civil rights movement, and therefore giving it the opportunity to capitalize on the heated struggles and fiery emotions between blacks and whites going on at the time. However, people are still making plenty of movies tackling racism in some capacity today, so clearly the messages within In the Heat of the Night are not completely devoid of value nor the least bit dated.
There's another reason though as to how and why In the Heat of the Night transcends the sense of boredom and dated-ness that handicaps several of the other Best Pictue winners such as Gentlemen's Agreement and A Man For All Seasons: it's set against the backdrop of an interesting murder mystery, and how in the world can murder mysteries become dated? There's plenty more to this film than just being a drama about what happens to a black man who finds himself facing oppression from racist white people. We also have a murder that needs to be solved and a killer to catch. Admittedly, it's not the most shocking nor rewarding murder mystery to ever grace the cinema, but I found myself unable to be angry or disappointed because the movie provides a thrill rush all the way through its 109 minutes that the likes of Gentleman's Agreement and A Man For All Seasons couldn't even dream of.
In the Heat of the Night takes place in 1966 in the small, fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi (which doesn't make much sense because there is a real place called Sparta in the state of Mississippi). Police officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) leaves a diner one night and drives his car around on a nightly patrol. While driving around, he discovers the body of Phillip Colbert, a wealthy industrialist who was preparing to build a factory in the town. The police deduce that Colbert has been murdered. Wood finds a black man named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), who is waiting to board a train at the station. Wood arrests Tibbs and brings him in to speak with the officer leading the investigation: Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Tibbs is immediately accused of murdering Colbert, but Tibbs reveals that he is actually a top homicide detective from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and that he was in town because he was visiting his mother. Gillespie speaks with Tibbs' chief, who confirms Tibbs' position and recommends that Tibbs assist the Sparta police force in investigating the murder. Although this idea does not sit well with either Tibbs or Gillespie, the two agree to work together.
The other side of the story is the treatment that Virgil receives from not only the entire Sparta police force, but of the entire town of Sparta. Solving the mystery quickly proves to be only half the battle, as Virgil finds himself to be a most unwelcome guest in the town. The most famous scene in the film, aside from the infamous, "They call me Mister Tibbs!" line is when Virgil is slapped by a white man, only for him to slap the man back. The slap from Virgil was met with shock by mainstream audiences, and it was what convinced Norman Jewison that the film could work just as effectively as a drama as it could a murder mystery. Finally, people could see the black man fight back against the oppression he had faced for too long. And to help Sidney Poitier's character stand out even more, cinematographer Haskell Wexler toned down the lighting, this being the first major color Hollywood film to have its lighting give careful consideration for a black actor.
- This is a movie that is incredibly acted, so much so that I'm not sure how anyone but the most cynical critic would dare to call it preachy. It's one thing for actors to come out and act in a way that they're basically saying to the camera, "Do you get the obvious message that we're trying to tell you" but it's another for the actors to make such good work out of their characters that the result is the likes of Virgil Tibbs and Chief Gillespie seeming completely realistic. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are nothing short of superb in their respective roles as mismatched buddy cops. Poitier speaks his lines with an underlying demeanor that's as suave as it is serious, knowing full well that Virgil Tibbs is always the smartest man in the room, and the sooner everyone shuts up and starts listening to every word he has to say, the better. Tibbs also displays an iron hide, never showing himself to be the least bit rattled by all of the insults and general harassing that he receives. Steiger's Gillespie is a vocal, controlling leader who frequently pushes Tibbs for answers, resulting in the two constantly sparring with one another. The two don't want to work together, but they have no choice. It hurts them inside, until they finally come to understand each other, although just a little bit.
- One special high point goes out to the production design, which I believe is a more overlooked part of the film. In the Heat of the Night utilizes a grimy color scheme, with several locations, especially the police station, looking rundown and visually unappealing. This is representative of the film's general mise-en-scene, as it takes place in a small, racist town that is home to a lot of bad attitudes. Virgil is doing unpleasant work and is also being treated unpleasantly by others, so to match this, it would make perfect sense for Sparta, Mississippi to not look like someone's next vacation spot.
- Alright, so now it would do us some good to dive a little deeper into the mystery component of the film, which is, unfortunately, where the movie suffers the most. Some of the details and conclusions that Tibbs reach remain fuzzy by the time we're supposed to have the mystery figured out. Tibbs has Officer Wood take him on the route he was on the night he discovered Colbert's body, but Wood changes his route, which Tibbs realizes (how he realizes this, I'm still not quite sure). There's also the matter of a 16 year old girl being involved with the murder, but how she got to be involved is not explained well enough. And when the time finally comes that we find out who the murderer is and what led to them murdering Colbert, the payoff is quite weak, not seeming at all like something we've been building up to and likely to cause a, "Really? That's it?" reaction similar to that of discovering who the killer is in Mystic River. On top of that, the true nature of the murder doesn't at all match the context of what the movie is about at its center, and that hurts the ability of the drama component and the mystery component to go hand in hand.
I am hesitant to say that In the Heat of the Night is an all-time classic, because as top-notch as a lot of it is, particularly the acting and production design, the mystery parts of the film end up being shaky and frustrating to piece together. But the fact that the movie has a mystery and is able to keep it exciting and not too predictable is what helps the movie stave off dated-ness, even if its inherent message about racism was inspired by everything going on with the civil rights movement in the 1960's and therefore making the film susceptible to being labeled a product of its time. In the end, In the Heat of the Night may be a message movie, but it's a message movie that tries to do more than just try to tell you, "racism is bad." It's also a mystery thriller, and while far from a perfect one, it still boasts a kind of excitement and level of intrigue that easily make it one of the upper tier Best Picture winners.
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