In the Heat of the Night

This film is effective on several levels. It certainly delivers great entertainment value, but this description demeans and misrepresents such a solid, social commentary on the Deep South shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In this context, it’s almost a documentary, portraying the deeply entrenched prejudices which are today so confronting to urban dwellers, especially outside the US. So it also affords a sobering history lesson in just how blinding racial intolerance can be. In this sense, the Rod Steiger character, Police Chief Bill Gillespie, is the worst afflicted. Not only is he wont to jump to conclusions, as is his deputy, Sergeant Sam Wood (Warren Oates), when the body of Philip Colbert is found lying face down on a side street in Sparta, Mississippi, but his repeated failure to search for evidence, or even follow the most basic procedures, is amazing. In response to his gum-chewing, beer-gutted boss’ snapped directions “to check the depot” (railway station), Wood proceeds to arrest Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who’s sitting in the waiting room for an early morning train. Tibbs has more money in his wallet than any Negro around those parts should have, so he’s immediately ...

This film is effective on several levels. It certainly delivers great entertainment value, but this description demeans and misrepresents such a solid, social commentary on the Deep South shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In this context, it’s almost a documentary, portraying the deeply entrenched prejudices which are today so confronting to urban dwellers, especially outside the US. So it also affords a sobering history lesson in just how blinding racial intolerance can be. In this sense, the Rod Steiger character, Police Chief Bill Gillespie, is the worst afflicted. Not only is he wont to jump to conclusions, as is his deputy, Sergeant Sam Wood (Warren Oates), when the body of Philip Colbert is found lying face down on a side street in Sparta, Mississippi, but his repeated failure to search for evidence, or even follow the most basic procedures, is amazing.

In response to his gum-chewing, beer-gutted boss’ snapped directions “to check the depot” (railway station), Wood proceeds to arrest Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who’s sitting in the waiting room for an early morning train. Tibbs has more money in his wallet than any Negro around those parts should have, so he’s immediately the prime suspect in the murder of Colbert, the wealthy businessman from Chicago.

After being predictably humiliated at the police station, where the occupants are not over endowed with intelligence, Tibbs’ true identity is revealed prompting the memorable response, to Gillespie’s question, “What do they call you in Philadelphia, boy?,” “They call me Mister Tibbs.”

Whilst the steadily evolving relationship between the principal protagonists, Tibbs and Gillespie, symbolises and compares black and white, educated and ignorant, professional and amateur, cerebral and physical, there is also the larger contrast of the North and the South; the Philadelphia homicide detective and the small town cop. Initially, Tibbs can’t wait to resume his homeward journey and Gillespie can’t wait to be shot of this uppity Negro. Fascinatingly, over the course of this tale, both men develop a degree of understanding and respect each other.

The supporting cast are consistently strong, the sub-plots and unforseen developments never fail to hold your attention and there is a very satisfying sensation at the conclusion when, thanks to Tibbs, the real murderer is apprehended and he’s a somewhat pathetic white, Ralph Henshaw, employed at the local, fly-blown diner.

In the unforgettable closing scene, Gillespie has driven Tibbs to the depot to board his train home. The police chief carries Tibbs’ one suitcase to the carriage door and, after a pregnant pause, utters the memorable line “You take care now, Virgil” and Tibbs, before mounting the steps, turns and with a lingering smile looks back at his erstwhile antagonist. A fitting end, strongly played by two great actors. It’s no surprise that Steiger won an Oscar for Best Actor, the film collected four other Oscars and Poitier was nominated for both the Golden Globe and a BAFTA.





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