Detective Virgil Tibbs is caught up in the racial tension of the US South when he is arrested after the murder of a prominent businessman. Tibbs was simply waiting for his next train at the station in Sparta, Mississippi and the confusion is soon resolved but when local police chief Gillespie learns that Tibbs is the Philadelphia PD's number one homicide expert, he reluctantly asks for his assistance. The murdered man, Mr. Colbert, had come to Sparta from the North to build a new factory and his wife and business associates immediately point the finger at Endicott, the most powerful man in the county and the one who had the most to lose if a major new employer comes to the area. Tibbs' life is clearly in danger but he perseveres in a highly charged and racially explosive environment until the killer is found. Written by
Gritty realism and a strong performance by Rod Steiger rev up the technical quality of this taut drama about a visiting Northern Black detective named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who gets nailed as a suspect, foolishly, in the murder of a local VIP, in a small town in Mississippi. Eventually, the town's White police chief, the gum chewing Gillespie (Rod Steiger), accepts Tibbs' innocence. And the two of them then work together, reluctantly, to solve the case.
Forty years after the film was made, the racial themes seem just a tad heavy-handed. Whites are always backward and racist. And Tibbs is smart, urbane, and sophisticated. But back in the 1960s, the filmmaker probably did need to be blunt. And the point is made that Blacks and Whites, working together, can accomplish worthy aims, even though old Black Joe is still pickin' cotton at the Endicott Cotton Company.
As a whodunit, the story is fairly good, convenient coincidences notwithstanding. The clue to the killer's identity is pleasantly subtle.
The film's cinematography and production design are terrific. Many scenes take place at night. And the opaque lighting makes for a moody, slightly dangerous look and feel. Loved how they photographed that train moving down the tracks in the Mississippi darkness, a metaphor related to the film's theme. And the sound of a train whistle adds to the mournful realism.
Interiors look authentic. The masking tape that covers rips in a big leather chair in Gillespie's shabby office is so true to life. A single white light bulb hangs down from the ceiling in a small neighborhood grocery store, where the shelves are filled with empty fruit jars. And that greasy spoon called Comptons reeks of 1960's Southern rural reality.
My only complaint with this film is the background music. Some of the jukebox songs are not consistent with the film's overall tone.
"In The Heat Of The Night" is a technically well made, and quite interesting, murder mystery. Yet, it will always be remembered, rightfully, as the film that offered hope of racial harmony, during a decade in which there was none. Its "Best Picture" Oscar award is thus explained.
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