On paper, In the Heat of the Night is one hell of a whodunit with all the requisite ingredients of a good mystery from the discovery of a body to the introduction to our intelligent, worthy detective that must weed out the lies and red herrings to identify the true motive and murderer by the time the final credits roll.
In fact, the script is so thrilling in the way that it sets up the case from the very first scene that Stirling Silliphant’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel garnered Silliphant the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Mystery (Motion Picture).
Making you appreciate the subtle nuances of the mystery that much more with each subsequent viewing, if In the Heat of the Night had just played out onscreen as a well-executed police procedural whodunnit it would’ve made for a fine night at the movies indeed.
But the fact that the excellently crafted case is in all actuality the least memorable thing about Night says something extraordinary indeed about the quality of the work overall and how it transcended its script to become a cultural touchstone in American filmmaking.
A watershed work for its treatment of racism in both its white and black characters, Night illustrates the importance of character-driven storytelling to help the talented cast of actors bring authentically real, flesh and blood human beings to life on the big screen.
At the same time, given the fact that it tapped into the issues facing the U.S. at the moment of its release, Norman Jewison’s five-time Oscar winning wonder also foreshadowed the potential of the cinematic medium as an instrument capable of holding up a mirror to society to bring about social change.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that those working behind the scenes including editor Hal Ashby and cinematographer Haskell Wexler would go on to direct films in their own right that also took the pulse of the country in the late sixties and early seventies from Ashby’s The Last Detail and Coming Home to Wexler’s Medium Cool.
Yet more than anything, the most memorable thing about In the Heat of the Night was Sidney Poitier’s boldly daring portrayal of a proud, intelligent black man who just wasn’t going to take it anymore.
Bravely dishing back the abuse he’s served by the racist white men onscreen as exemplified by what MGM’s Blu-ray release dubbed “The Slap Heard Around the World,” perhaps the most groundbreaking and iconic scene in Jewison’s film finds Poitier’s police Detective Virgil Tibbs slapping a white plantation owner across the face as payback for the hit he’d been given.
Released a full year before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and before the burgeoning Black Power Movement took hold, Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs was a character the likes of which American filmgoers had never seen onscreen before.
Educated, smart and given a position of authority – far from being the embodiment of civil disobedience as seen in newsreel footage of Freedom Riders remaining still while they were beaten —Tibbs not only dared to fight back but he also had seen and been through enough that he felt a certain amount of reverse racism himself.
Called out for his pride and arrogance – one of the things that made Poitier’s powerful portrayal so fascinating to watch was the fact that his flaws were on display right alongside his strengths and in some cases, we witnessed both simultaneously which made him instantly understandable and identifiable to everyone watching (regardless of color).
And while on the surface, it wouldn’t appear that Tibbs would relate to the southern white police chief played by the incredible Rod Steiger as the two men begrudgingly work alongside one another after visiting Philadelphia detective Tibbs is ordered by his chief to assist with a high profile murder investigation, we realize that they have much more in common than they’d like to admit.
Though the police department’s racism and incompetence is on full display in the first act of the film when Tibbs – in town visiting his mother – is arrested on suspicion of murder before he flashes his badge, we eventually come to discover that Steiger’s chief is an outsider as well.
New to the position which was previously filled by a man who never would have stood by and let Tibbs slap a white man back, Steiger is a man pulled in two directions at the same time – just like Tibbs.
Likewise, the chief's ability to cut right through the good ol’ boy bull and acknowledge the fact that he legitimately needs Tibbs’s help in addition to the way he uses reverse psychology with Tibbs (understanding that he should stay if only to show the dumb white men how it’s done) proves he’s no dummy.
While both men shine in their multilayered, complex performances that heighten and challenge the other actors in each scene, Jewison’s crew expertly taps into the tension of their complicated dynamic with visceral cinematographic techniques that ratchets up the danger facing Virgil in the south.
Filmed with gritty urgency to bring us into the frame and even – at times – push and pull us in a police chase or force us into a corner along with Virgil when racist thugs trap him in a warehouse, Wexler’s lensing and Ashby’s edits make the scenes come to life far more than traditional static point and shoot filmmaking with predictable talking head cuts.
From Ray Charles’s terrific title tune to Quincy Jones’s pulsating, contemporary score, everything about In the Heat of the Night feels somehow newer and bolder than typical studio fare of the era, which is doubly impressive when you realize that Night was made by forward thinking producers at a major studio.
Gorgeously restored and transferred to a flawless 1080p Blu-ray high definition presentation, In the Heat of the Night looks and sounds better than ever in MGM’s new release that boasts filmmaker feature commentary (with Jewison, Wexler, Steiger and Lee Grant) along with three informative featurettes that offer insight into not only the when, what, where, who, why and how Night was brought to life but its historical legacy as well.
Featuring analysis and observations from film scholars, filmmakers and academics specializing in African-American studies among others, In the Heat of the Night’s Blu-ray debut seems poised to appeal to film, sociology and history professors and movie buffs alike.
Noteworthy for the number of times you can watch Jewison’s work and uncover something new from a technical or intellectual standpoint, MGM’s stunning ’67 release is more than just a thrilling mystery – it celebrates the mysteries of man as well, by forcing us to take a good long look in the mirror that is Jewison’s movie and check our preconceptions at the door.
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