Based on a novel of the same name by John Ball that was published in 1965, In the Heat of the Night is a murder mystery film set in a small town in Mississippi in 1967. It stars Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a police detective from Philadelphia, who is drafted in to assist the local police chief, Bill Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger, with a murder investigation.
Tibbs, a black detective, arrives in the town of Sparta during an era of bigotry and the rise of the civil rights movement.
Today, the film is considered a classic drama, a snapshot of a bygone era, in which Tibbs is arrested for no reason other than his race, while sitting on a railway station platform.
In 2002, the Library of Congress selected In the Heat of the Night for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, on the grounds it was “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The film was directed by Norman Jewison, who was nominated for an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night – he has directed many other iconic films including Fiddler on the Roof in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 and Rollerball in 1975.
In the Heat of the Night was edgy and tough, with the residents of the Southern town seeming to hate outsiders. The theme reflected the reality of the uncertain mood of the era, with the Civil Rights Movement attempting to right the wrongs in society.
Jewison’s aim was to relate an anti-racist story, featuring a white man and a black man working together and overcoming the difficulties presented by the mood of the times.
There are many iconic scenes, including perhaps the most famous in which the small-town, bigoted police officers try to rile Tibbs by mocking his first name, Virgil, saying it’s a “funny name” for a man of his ethnic origins.
They ask him sneeringly, “What do they call you in Philadelphia?” and he replies with barely-concealed anger, “They call me Mr Tibbs!”
The quote from the tense scene was voted number 16 in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes of the past century.
Filming took place in the real town of Sparta, although it was stated at the time that the action wasn’t meant to reflect the real-life community. The portrayal of Sparta in the movie was said to be completely fictional. Scenes were also filmed in Dyersburg, Union City and Freeburg.
Jewison, Steiger and Poitier got on well and worked together efficiently, although it was reported that Poitier had reservations about filming south of the Mason–Dixon line – which was west of Delaware, marking the northern limit of slavery in the US. It exists in a figurative sense today as the line that separates the North and South socially and politically.
In an interview in 2017, celebrating the film’s 50th anniversary, Jewison, now aged 92, recalled Poitier’s reticence. Jewison said he wanted to make films that had an impact on society and discussed In the Heat of the Night at length with Poitier before the project began.
Poitier had asked Jewison where the filming was going to take place. When he found out in was in the southern states, Poitier reportedly told the director he wouldn’t go south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Jewison said that Poitier described an “unsettling experience” he had suffered in Georgia while driving in a car with his friend Harry Belafonte, the famous black actor and singer. Poitier reportedly said that their car had been chased and they had been threatened in a racist incident.
Determined not to lose Poitier, Jewison said he would do his best to stay north of the Mason-Dixon line, as he was desperate for the star to do the picture. He then discovered Sparta, just across the state line from Missouri, on the Mississippi River.
The town became the main location for filming. In the book, the action was set in Wells, South Carolina. Jewison changed it to Sparta for the film because it would have been too big a task painting over all of the location signs in Sparta before filming.
For Poitier, who was 40 at the time, the movie was the latest in a succession of hit films that had started in 1950 with the American film noir, No Way Out.
Born in 1927, in Miami, Florida, Poitier was the son of Reginald and Evelyn Poitier, who were farmers on the British colony of Cat Island in the Bahamas. He arrived two months early, when his parents had travelled to Miami to sell their produce.
He defied the odds as a desperately weak premature baby and after three months in hospital, he was well enough to return to Cat Island with his parents. After moving to New York at 16 and working in restaurants to survive, he joined a theatre group and honed his acting skills.
His big break came after winning the role of a student in an unruly high school class in the movie, Blackboard Jungle, in 1955.
The star, who is now 92, went on to establish himself as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, winning a multitude of awards, including Golden Globes, Grammy awards, Academy awards and a BAFTA Fellowship in 2016.
He has also received the American Film Industry’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Virgil Tibbs is one of Poitier’s most famous roles. Tibbs has a black belt in karate and has extensive knowledge of many different fields, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve problems. He is also perceptive, with a cold and intellectual demeanour.
His sole motivation is justice and duty and he isn’t interested in glory or media attention. A hard-working and diligent detective, Tibbs refuses to accept the racism of his new surroundings in Sparta.
There are many memorable scenes, including the most famous one, in which Tibbs and a suspect whom he is interviewing have a fight.
The body of Enrico Mantoli, an orchestra conductor and organiser of Sparta’s upcoming music festival, has been found in the middle of the highway. During the course of the police investigation, Tibbs and Gillespie go to interview the wealthy city councilman, Eric Endicott, in the orchid house attached to his mansion.
Endicott is a racist, who doesn’t like being interviewed by a black detective, even though Tibbs is polite and calm. Suddenly, Endicott loses his temper and lunges at Tibbs, slapping him across the face for what he perceives as “insolence”.
Tibbs slaps him back, even harder, causing an astonished Endicott to stagger and almost fall over. The blustering councilman wasn’t expecting this and tells the detective, “There was a time when I could’ve had you shot!”
According to an interview with Poitier (published in the book, Civil Rights and Race Relations in the USA), he had told Jewison that if Endicott slapped Tibbs, then the detective would be slapping him back.
In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars, including best lead actor for Rod Steiger, best picture and best adapted screenplay. The film was described as “tense” and “thought provoking” by the critics and has a 96% approval rating on the fans’ review site, Rotten Tomatoes.
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