MGM // 1967 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // January 29th, 2014
They call me Mister Tibbs!
Movies like In the Heat of the Night are tough for modern audiences to appreciate for what they meant to audiences. This is an objectively good film, well-directed, nicely performed, and technically proficient all the way around. The politics, though, ring very strangely today. It's easy to see where the filmmakers were coming from and that, for the time, they were taking the high road in their work, but there are big problems with the storytelling. In any case, In the Heat of the Night is a classic that has escaped me until now, and I find that, while I can totally appreciate it, it's pretty hard for me to enjoy.
One night in Sparta, Mississippi, a white businessman is found murdered in the street and Deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates, The Wild Bunch) thinks he's found the perp when he spies a young black man at the train station. So he hauls in Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field) and, when he puts him in front of Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger, On the Waterfront), they have a good time being tough whites against a vulnerable black man. So imagine their surprise when it's revealed that Tibbs is not only a Philadelphia police officer, but a crack homicide detective at that. By order of the mayor, now they must overcome the racial divide to find the real killer.
Not many movies are so filled with talent, both in front and behind the camera, as In the Heat of the Night. As the stars, Poitier and Steiger are obviously brilliant. Then you've got the supporting players, with Warren Oates and Lee Grant (Mulholland Drive) leading a fantastic group. Behind the camera, we have a script written by the brilliant Stirling Siliphant (The Killer Elite), photography by Haskell Wexler (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest), and direction by Norman Jewison (Moonstruck). Finally, we have the legendary Quincy Jones scoring the music with songs to be performed by the likes of Ray Charles and Glen Campbell. That's some serious talent that clearly comes through on the screen. It's a well-directed, finely acted mystery and, on paper, should actually live up to its reputation as a classic.
Yet, with all of that true, the movie doesn't work. Not today, at least. It was certainly effective and important for the tumultuous end of the 1960s, but in 2014, it comes across as hectoring and surprisingly narrow-minded, given its progressive subject. It's about as black-and-white as a '30s western, with absolutely no attempt to introduce any ambiguity into the story. The Southern whites are racists, all of them, and the sight of a black man is enough to haul him in because some murder happened that same day. Tibbs is there to teach them a lesson and make them look foolish, which he most clearly does, all the while showing them that the color of his skin has no bearing on the level of his abilities.
It's awkward and terribly ham-fisted, much in the style of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (spoilers...it's a black man) or The Defiant Ones, teaching lessons at the expense of telling a story. Now, in 1967, this was a deliberate political move to try to change the culture and I salute Jewison, et al, for their efforts. The problem is, looking at the broader picture, that non-Southern whites would have looked at it and said, "See...Southerners are stupid racists; we're not like that up here," which is, of course, garbage. There were racists nationwide and still are today. Meanwhile, Southern viewers would just get angry at their portrayal, regardless of the veracity of it, and alienate that audience. The way everyone is portrayed, it's hard to see how it would be such a success.
It did very well at the box office, though, and much of that falls on the shoulders of Poitier and Steiger. They have just the right amount of chemistry in their antagonism and eventual friendship; it seems believable from the moment Gillespie realizes he's a fellow cop. There's a bond there transcending race that not even an old-school bigot like him can deny, and it forces him to swallow his pride and his deeply held notions and do what he's paid to do: solve a murder. Both performances are key here; Steiger's gruff racist cop is as believable as it gets, while Poitier's a noble and imminently capable person who is the only one capable of solving the crime, yet his own racial prejudices get in the way of his investigation.
Yes, yes, everybody learns a lesson and everyone is either better off for Tibbs' presence or in jail. If the overall technical proficiency wasn't so ridiculously high, I would probably hate In the Heat of the Night. As it stands, I think the plotting is very much a thing of its time and doesn't work very well today, but it's still a valuable movie with plenty to offer.
In the Heat of the Night arrives on Blu-ray from MGM with a decent release, but not one that's going to wow anybody. The upgrade over the previous, and very good, DVD from a decade ago is fairly minimal, with some improvement in the sharpness of the image and stronger, more natural colors. The 1.85:1/1080p transfer displays some fine detail, but nothing too shocking and there remains a softness that is often present in movies of its era. The sound fairs pretty well, with a decent Master Audio surround upmix that features crisp dialog, strong music, and really no noise at all.
Extras are a little more extensive than the old version, as well. The disc starts with the commentary from the DVD, featuring Norman Jewison, Lee Grant, Rod Steiger, and Haskell Wexler. The individuals were recorded separately, but they're cut together well to make it sound reasonably conversational. All have good stories and it's a discussion well worth a listen. Three featurettes make up the bulk of the rest. First, a fifteen minute piece on how filmmaking attitudes were changing in the late '60s, with this movie at the center of it all. Next, a seven minute piece on the slap that Poitier delivers to uber-racist Endicott, played by the hopefully less ignorant Larry Gates (The Young Savages). Finally, a short piece on the score. The original trailer rounds out the disc.
I might not feel like the movie works as well as others obviously do, but there's no question about the skill behind the production and its importance in movie history. It obviously has its fans and, for them, the Blu-ray for In the Heat of the Night is worth the upgrade.
Review content copyright © 2014 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated