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
There are many bad "issues" movies out there, but this is not one of them. In a bad movie, all of the racist characters would be one dimensional and one hundred percent evil; here, Steiger is allowed to play a prejudiced man who is actually sympathetic and capable of growth (hence the Oscar). In a great twist, Virgil Tibbs himself is shown to be capable of prejudice, as he pursues Endicott without sufficient evidence. It's refreshing to see a movie that portrays the entire spectrum of racism, from the crazy extremists (and there are plenty of those on hand here) to the more subtly prejudiced.
"Mississippi Burning," a weaker effort, is not only more tediously didactic, but also less progressive; that film doesn't feature a protagonist like Virgil Tibbs, and instead focuses on the actions of two white federal agents. In this case, the old movie really is the better movie; produced at the height of the civil rights struggle, "In the Heat of the Night" feels more immediate and passionate than preachy films on the subject that were made years later, after the tension had died down.
Some reviewers complain that the mystery segments of the film are confusing, but I follow them without much trouble. Tibbs does a great Sherlock Holmes routine throughout, as he pieces together the solution based on clues that are also available to viewers. Sure, the ending is surprising, but it doesn't come entirely out of left field; I actually admire the subtle ways that clues are sewn throughout the film. If you're not used to mysteries, the barrage of red herrings and dead-end clues might surprise you, but it's pretty standard stuff for the genre.
I knew about the classic line "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" long before I actually saw this movie. I used to wonder why the line was so famous; it doesn't sound that exciting, does it? But when I finally heard Poitier say it in context, I asked my brother to pause the tape so I could cheer without missing any of the subsequent dialog. That's how excited I get during this movie. The performances are so naturalistic, and the racial conflict so vividly drawn, that I get pulled into the action completely. Though 1967 was a strong year for films, I still think that the right one got Best Picture, and not just because it was topical; "In the Heat of the Night" is a well-directed, superb character study, populated by some of the most vivid characters I've ever encountered in a movie.
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