In the Heat of the Night [DVD]
Screenplay : Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by John Ball)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1967
Stars : Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs), Rod Steiger (Bill Gillespie), Warren Oates (Sam Wood), Lee Grant (Leslie Colbert), Larry Gates (Eric Endicott), James Patterson (Mr. Purdy), William Schallert (Mayor Webb Schubert), Scott Wilson (Harvey Oberst), Beah Richards (Mama Caleba)
Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night was released in 1967, the height of the Civil Rights movement and one of the most violent years in modern American history (between 1967 and 1968, there were 384 riots in 298 different cities, including the most infamous in Detroit and Newark). As the film is both a mystery-detective story and a socially conscious exploration of the relations between whites and African Americans, it was a case of immaculate timing--the concerns outlined in the film were exactly those that had America tightly in its grip. Yet, more than 30 years of passing time have done little to diminish its impact, which speaks volumes about the power of the film and the fact that race relations are still a haunting problem.
The story involves the murder of rich Northern businessman who recently moved to the fictional small town of Sparta, Mississippi, in order to build a factory. An African American named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) happens to be waiting in the train station late that night after visiting relatives in another town, and the police arrest him, not only because he is black, but because he is a definite outsider. Tibbs' outsider status is demonstrated from the opening frames of the film, which show him arriving in town on a train, emphasizing that he is not a part of this community. Likewise, the film ends with his leaving town on a train, proving how transitory was the nature of his being there. This geographical emphasis is important to keep in mind because the film is arguably as much about the North/South divide as it is about the black/white divide.
Once Tibbs is arrested, the police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), learns that he is, in fact, an ace homicide detective from Philadelphia who makes more in a week than Gillespie makes in a month. At the insistence of the widow (Lee Grant) of the murdered man, Tibbs is convinced to stay in town and help in the investigation, even though he is only grudgingly appreciated by Gillespie and despised by most of the locals. In this way, In the Heat of the Night can be seen as a late entry into the post-World War II socially conscious "message movies" in which a lone African-American character was inserted into a predominantly white environment, which allowed for racial tensions to be raised and eventually worked out (these were usually military-themes films, such as Home of the Brave).
As the lone African-American character stranded in small-town, redneck Mississippi, Virgil Tibbs is a fascinating and powerful character. At first, Tibbs seems to bear out many of the same characteristics that are often attributed to "Uncle Tom" characters: upright and noble, but powerless when faced with oppressive white forces. When Tibbs is first arrested in the train station by deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates), he doesn't give the slightest hint of resistance. During the arrest, Wood refers to Tibbs with the derogatory name "boy" numerous times, slams him against the wall, and mocks him as a thief for having money in his wallet. Yet, Tibbs does nothing until he arrives at the police station and, in what Pauline Kael rightfully called a "high comic moment," reveals himself to be a police officer.
It turns out that, in almost every conceivable way, Tibbs is the superior of every white man. He's intellectually superior to all the Sparta police officers; he's superior to the local coroner in knowledge about human anatomy; he's physically superior to a group of violent bigots who corner him in a warehouse; and he's morally superior, because even when he slips into an angry racism of his own, he eventually recognizes his weakness. This multi-faceted superiority is obvious in every way, and Gillespie knows it when he says angrily, "You're so damn smart. You're smarter than any white man. You're just going to stay here and show us all."
Tibbs first demonstrates some of his authority when Gillespie demands that he turn over the results from the coroner's lab. Gillespie is after the wrong man, and Tibbs wants to ensure that his opinion on the case is heard. "You gonna give me that?" Gillespie asks, to which Tibbs replies firmly, "No, I am not." Later, Gillespie, in a fit of anger, yells, "Virgil, that's a funny name for a nigger boy who comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?" Tibbs' answer, which is so firm and indelible in Poitier's delivery that it was used as the title for one of the film's sequels, is: "They call me MISTER Tibbs." His stern insistence on the formal name "Mr. Tibbs" is especially notable because, up until the 1960s, most Southern newspapers omitted the courtesy titles "Mr." and "Mrs." before African American names.
However, Tibbs' most notable exercise of power happens just over an hour into the film. Tibbs and Gillespie have gone to question Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), a wealthy plantation owner who is suspected of the murder. Endicott at first appears to be comfortable with Tibbs, and they happily discuss flowers in his greenhouse. However, when Tibbs proceeds to explain to Endicott why they are questioning him, Endicott, infuriated that he is a suspect being questioned by "a Negro," silently walks up and slaps Tibbs across the face. While a traditional "Uncle Tom" character would have taken the slap with wounded dignity, Tibbs immediately and without thinking slaps Endicott right back. (Poitier insisted that this was the first time a major motion picture had ever depicted a black man striking a white man.)
At this moment, the film makes clear that Tibbs is putting himself in danger because Endicott is a powerful man in Sparta. But, at the same time, it emphasizes not only Tibbs' physical authority over the small, shrunken old man, but the fact that Endicott's slap was pathetic in its outdatedness. His following comment--"There was a time when I could have had you shot"--only reaffirms this notion that Endicott is the last of a sad breed, the powerful plantation owner so intensely celebrated in The Birth of a Nation (1915), and now an outmoded relic of a time gone-by.
The scene could have ended there, but it continues outside, which shows the dual nature of the black/white relationship and racism in general. Tibbs, thoroughly insulted and bitter at Endicott's condescension, declares his intent to bring Endicott in for the murder: "Give me another day. Two days. I'm close. I can bring that fat cat down! I can bring him right off this hill!" Gillespie immediately notices the switch, that Tibbs has been goaded into his own brand of racism, and he remarks: "Oh, boy. You're just like the rest of us, ain't you?"
And this, primarily, is one of In the Heat of the Night's major themes: Racism is a two-way street, something that Tibbs later admits to when he says, "I was hung up trying to get Endicott for personal reasons." The film suggests that, had Tibbs not realized this, he would have continued trying to get Endicott and, therefore, would have missed catching the actual criminal.
The core of the film is the guarded relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie, which begins in almost comical hostility and ends in mutual admiration. What is most fascinating about the relationship is the fact that, with exception of the Endicott episode, Tibbs and Gillespie spend almost no time actually working on the murder case together. Instead, the moments between the two characters are usually in the form of disputes over how Tibbs is investigating the case on his own.
Yet, Poitier and Steiger have such strong chemistry together and they act so well in their respective roles that their relationship comes alive and grabs you on a gut level. It grabs you most of all because each actor is excellent in portraying that slow evolution of his character's worldview. This is not a one-sided development where only the obviously racist Gillespie learns to be more tolerant. There is just as much development in Tibbs' character, although his growth seems to be in moving beyond his Northern elitism.
For a race drama that is now almost 35 years old, In the Heat of the Night has aged extremely well. Norman Jewison's direction is as crisp and invigorating as it was in 1967, and the minimal use of stylistic flourishes that often date other films of the late 1960s gives the film a generally ageless look. However, Sterling Silliphant's screenplay remains somewhat problematic in terms of developing the murder mystery; the final resolution doesn't seem to make much sense on the initial viewing, and it is only after having seen it several times that all the pieces come together.
Nevertheless, In the Heat of the Night remains a powerful film that retains its ability to both entertain and make you think. Race relations have improved considerably in the three decades since the film was first released, but its message about the slippery nature of racism and the way imbedded, unquestioned beliefs can contaminate an entire community is one that should not quickly be forgotten.
|In the Heat of the Night DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural|
|Languages||English, French, Spanish|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary with director Norman Jewison, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and actors Rod Steiger and Lee Grant|
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||Metro Goldwyn Mayer|
|Overall, the image quality on this disc is very good. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (the first time, as far as I know, the film has been available on home video in its original aspect ratio), the image is generally clean, with the exception of a few bits of damage now and then, none of which is particularly distracting. Colors look strong and have worn well over the past three decades. Skin tones look natural and black levels are quite solid throughout. The image quality does change a bit from shot to shot, with some being razor sharp while others come off as slightly soft and a bit grainy.The autopsy scene in Chapter 3 is particularly instructive. At one point, Tibbs looks at the corpse's pant leg, and the image is so finely detailed that you can make out different kinds of dirt and debris on the material, something you could never see on video versions. Yet, there is another shot in the same sequence that is one of the softest on the disc. However, those quibbles aside, I think this DVD presents the film in the just about the best possible quality.|
|The soundtrack, which is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural, sounds quite good. The soundtrack is clean and clear with no aural artifacts, andQuincy Jones' wonderful blues-based musical score sounds excellent throughout. The opening title song sung by Ray Charles sound especially good. Dialogue throughout is always clear and understandable.|
| This DVD includes an engaging screen-specific audio commentary by director Norman Jewison, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and stars Rod Steiger and Lee Grant (too bad they couldn't have gotten Poitier to contribute, though). Although recorded separately, the four contributors are nicely edited together to create a virtually seamless commentary. Jewison spends most of his time discussing the film as a whole, shooting locations, the characters, and how the movie fits into the history of the late 1960s and the Civil Rights revolution in the United States. Wexler is much more technical; he seems to relish his opportunity to spend long period of time discussing various lighting techniques and camera lenses. For those interested in the nuts and bolts of shooting a movie, you could do a lot worse than listening to this two-time Oscar winner. Steiger and Grant contribute the least to the commentary in terms of time, but they still have many interesting things to say. Steiger is particularly amusing in that he is about as over-the-top in his commentary as he is in his acting style, and he has amazing things to say about the expressive possibilities of chewing gum. Grant is much more reserved by comparison, although she offers valuable insight into what it meant for her to play a newly widowed woman because she had lost a husband not long before the movie was shot. |
The only other supplement is a scratchy, full-frame theatrical trailer and a brief set of liner notes.
©2001 James Kendrick