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
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is a well-crafted murder mystery with a twist. Sidney Poitier is a big city detective wrongfully arrested by a racist small police detachment after the brutal murder of the town's would-be financial savior. Once the matter is resolved and Poitier released, he finds himself aiding his former captors, including Police Chief Rod Steiger, in their quest to get to the bottom of the crime.
An Academy Award winner for Best Picture, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT works on so many levels. It's a solid, unpredictable whodunit with beautiful cinematography and crisp direction from Norman Jewison. All the actors are on top of their games, particularly Steiger, whose not-entirely-likable chief gradually looks past his prejudices to warm up to Poitier. Poitier is his usual superb self, once again maintaining his vast dignity as the target of bigotry, much like he did in THE DEFIANT ONES.
And like THE DEFIANT ONES, a key theme in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is racism. In fact the racism on display here is so fierce and perverse that it's almost hard to believe (though I'm sure it didn't stretch a thing). You can't help but feel an emotional attachment to Poitier as he's subjected to taunts, attempted attacks, and off-color remarks from those who either don't realize the power of their words or don't care. Poitier proves again why he is perhaps the finest African-American actor ever to grace the screen.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is one of those movies that, while not perfect, is impossible to dislike. It's classic, though still relevant, entertainment.
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