Blu-ray Review: In the Heat of the Night | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

In the Heat of the Night

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Feb 05, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

After a wealthy industrialist has been found murdered in the middle of a small Mississippi town, a black man is arrested for the crime. There’s not much proof, but being black and alone at the train station after midnight is enough to arouse suspicions. It’s more than enough for the town’s Chief Gillespie, who’s determined to coerce the suspect into a confession, until discovering a rather curious possession: a police badge. A quick phone call reveals his suspect to be Virgil Tibbs, the best detective in Philadelphia who was in town merely changing trains. Rather than simply allow him to go on his way, however, Gillespie offers a proposition: help the under-resourced police department solve the murder for which he was originally arrested. Tibbs agrees, thus beginning what is famously one of the most unlikely cop partnerships in film history.

In the Heat of the Night was released in 1967, as white America grappled with change instigated by the civil rights movement, and it plays as such. The small, white town seems stuck in time, and the arrival of Tibbs, with his big city deductive reasoning and Sidney Poitier’s famous gravitas, is seen as a threat to the foundations of their little enclave. Especially to Rod Steiger’s Gillespie who, by film’s end, has incorrectly pinned the murder on three different people, each with little-to-no evidence. It’s tempting to attribute his poor policing as lazy or ignorant, but with Steiger, it feels more about self-worth or self-esteem, with his haste an attempt to quickly clean up a spill, as if to deny any stains on his idyllic town.

While this small-town resentment of progress and its nostalgia for “simple values” rings true in today’s America, the character of Virgil Tibbs does not. In Poitier, Tibbs is not only the smartest and loquacious character in the film, but the classiest and most handsome. He’s also the most deferential. Sometimes, this reinforces a point--when he’s first arrested, his instinct to not argue but simply put his hands over his head is very telling of what it meant (and still means) to be black in America. But later, when his credentials are confirmed and he agrees to help with the case, something’s missing--what’s in it for him? Does he ask for money or protection against an incredibly hostile town? Will solving this case earn him a promotion back home? Or is his sole purpose in life to help rednecks solve mysteries? His lone concern is whether Gillespie would be too offended by his presence.

In a famous scene, when Tibbs sharply questions a wealthy townsperson about the murder, the man slaps Tibbs across his face. Tibbs immediately slaps him back, a very controversial beat in the evolution of the film’s screenplay (on the disc’s bonus feature, Poitier explains he only agreed to the film if Tibbs reciprocated the slap). Perhaps in 1967, the image of a black man slapping a white man would have left audiences’ mouths agape. Today, it’s incredibly tame, and the subsequent actions make it read almost as accidental and reflexive.

Part of that is because the scene is structured less about Tibbs’ reaction than Gillespie’s: will he punish this black man for hitting a white man? The answer is “no” and this marks a significant step towards his eventual acceptance of Tibbs. It’s not just this scene but the entire film that’s Gillespie’s -- he’s the one who must change against the resolute foe, and he’s the vehicle that teaches the audience to respect different people and ideas (and Steiger was the one nominated for and who won the Best Actor Oscar).

While age has dulled scenes that were meant to be incisive, what today reads as incredibly loose language creates an uneven tone. Scenes meant for a laugh are laced with casual racism. When it seems Tibbs will be relieved from investigating the murder, the widow stomps into the police station to declare, “I want the negro on the case!” Surrounded by white cops, the camera tight on her defiant face, it’s crazy that this is meant to play as noble.

These criticisms aren’t to call out problematic filmmaking, to dismiss the film’s laurels, or to deny its place in Hollywood history -- rather, these laurels are why it’s a fascinating watch today. In the Heat of the Night should be treated a time capsule that offers a glimpse into what constituted daring and forward-thinking filmmaking 1967. At least, according to mainstream Hollywood. The film actually bristled with many civil rights activists like James Baldwin, who saw the film as self congratulatory liberal back-patting, and it’s worth appreciating how change in mainstream bears this out. Unfortunately, mainstream change happens in small increments, but even so, it’s even worth appreciating the film’s one timeless quality -- you can always find people who dig in their heels.

Author rating: 6/10

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