Mark Harris’ Pictures At A Revolution, one of the best film books in recent years, examines Hollywood in a time of transition by focusing on the five 1967 films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar the following year. Of the nominees, two belonged to the old way of doing things (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which addressed the hot-button issue of race via a star-powered Stanley Kramer drama, and the big-budget musical Dr. Dolittle) and two were the products of an emerging sensibility inspired by the French New Wave and other form-bending influences (Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde). Perhaps fittingly, the film that ultimately won the award belonged to neither camp. Or more accurately, it belonged a bit to both.
The winner, In The Heat Of The Night, shares star Sidney Poitier with Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and both films feel like they’re working through the era’s racial tension onscreen. Its story—scripted by Stirling Silliphant from a novel by mystery writer John Ball—is a fairly straightforward mystery of the sort Hollywood studios had been turning out for decades. Director Norman Jewison looked elsewhere for his stylistic cues, however. Though the southern Illinois town of Sparta mostly subbed in for the Deep South setting, Jewison shot on location, and in cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby, found a pair of collaborators who weren’t afraid to take chances. Though apart from its handling of race, In The Heat Of The Night’s story had a familiar ring, it didn’t really look much like the standard fare of 1967. It employs Wexler’s knack for on-the-spot compositions, making free use of a zoom lens (a tool Jewison learned to use working live TV), and letting every unglamorous face and unmopped bead of sweat contribute to the atmosphere. It didn’t sound much like standard fare, either, thanks to a bluesy Quincy Jones score.
Then there was the way the film used Poitier. Though one of the few African-American actors who could be counted on to draw both black and white audiences, Poitier often ended up in a can’t-win position. Racists disliked him on principle, while other pundits criticized him for softening himself to win white fans via roles that allowed him to be polite, noble, and little else. In The Heat Of The Night lets Poitier play with those expectations. He stars as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective passing through the town of Sparta, Mississippi, where he’s detained on suspicion of murder after a Chicago industrialist making plans to build a factory in Sparta turns up dead in the streets. Recognizing that one false word could get him killed in spite of his innocence, Tibbs says little and cooperates with the openly bigoted cops who arrest him and with Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), a police chief who’s several shades smarter, albeit no less racist, than the men he employs. When Gillespie discovers Tibbs’ expertise, Tibbs’ boss offers to put him on the case. Tibbs reluctantly goes along, but in agreeing, he also abandons his need to keep his cool.
It’s one of several moments in the film when a common interest becomes a bridge across the racial divide, though sometimes those bridges get destroyed as quickly as they’re created. Tibbs and Gillespie fall out several times over the course of the film, but an encounter with a wealthy plantation owner named Endicott (Larry Gates) gives the film its angriest moment. After Tibbs and Endicott appear to connect over their shared love and deep knowledge of flowers, Endicott makes a racist analogy that undoes any bond. When Tibbs insinuates Endicott might have been involved in the murder, he gets a slap, which Tibbs quickly returns, and Gillespie refuses to punish him for not knowing his place. It’s as economical an encapsulation of the changing times as any movie could offer, and a blow that helped open the door for strong black heroes to come.
Yet as daring as the moment is, it ultimately becomes an example of In The Heat Of The Night hedging its bets. When Tibbs discovers Endicott had nothing to do with the murder, he comes to see his suspicion as an example of his own prejudice, which the film seems to hold as almost as great a sin as the prejudice surrounding him. And though the film portrays the racism of the South as institutional and inescapable, it’s a little too eager to offer glimmers of hope with increasing frequency as the film nears its end and Tibbs and Gillespie come to understand each other better.
What saves it, and what makes the film compelling today for reasons beyond its unconventional style, is the way Poitier and Steiger play that journey toward understanding. As Tibbs, Poitier swallows his anger until he nearly chokes on it, letting his eyes say words he’s barely able to keep from speaking. As Gillespie, Steiger similarly has to hide his feelings, particularly the professional respect that’s making him question a lifetime of ingrained racist ideas. They’re perfectly matched, and though the film’s central mystery doesn’t really go anywhere—resulting in far too many sluggish patches and a shrug of a climax—the tension between the two men gives the film all the charge it needs as they carve out a space, however small and temporary, to hide from the noise and tension around them, and sort out a matter of justice.
Sporting a great-looking HD transfer, this Blu-ray otherwise just ports over features from previous DVD releases. They’re pretty good ones, though: several making-of featurettes address the film’s production and Jones’ score, and an audio commentary unites Jewison, Grant, Steiger, and Wexler.