Written as part of the blogathon hosted by Ryan at The Matinee.
None of this is to disparage Steiger's Oscar-winning performance, which lives up to its reputation. He's incredible here, as the police chief of Sparta, Mississippi who slowly (VERY slowly) wakes up to the fact that maybe, just maybe, African Americans are worthy of the same trust and respect as white people. Or maybe just this one particular African American, played by Sidney Poitier in an incendiary performance. Poitier's barely controlled rage throughout his performance as Virgil Tibbs, Philadelphian police officer caught up in a murder investigation in the racially hostile South is quite a thing to behold.
It's not that In The Heat of the Night is a bad film (like its closest analogue the not-quite-as-woeful-as-some-say-but-still-nowhere-near-Oscar-level Crash), it just isn't a particularly revelatory one. While it does handle a very thorny, tricky subject with an almost surprising level of realism (unlike Stanley Kramer's rose-colored-glasses look at similar subject matter that same year, also starring Poitier), there isn't a whole lot of nuance. It paints in rather bolder strokes than I was expecting, given its reputation. For every scene like the famous slapping scene (which prompts a brilliant nearly silent, confused response from Steiger) there's a scene like the also-famous "They call me MISTER TIBBS" scene, which is pitched so high as to almost approach camp. But the atmosphere courtesy of master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, as well as the careful character work done by Steiger and Poitier, keep the film firmly grounded in reality at all times.
It's near-impossible to separate In The Heat of the Night from its time and place. It might lose something with time, especially in the wake of all the many police procedural stories we've seen since, but in its way it is a groundbreaking film. All the evidence you need of that is to look at Sidney Poitier's filmography: How many times before this did he get to play a competent, but imperfect professional who still got to speak truth to power? Hell, how many times did he get to do so AFTER this? It's not a perfect film about race relations in the 60s, but all things considered it's probably the best we could have gotten: Neither completely cynical nor completely optimistic, the film suggests that everyone has their own prejudices to overcome, and the only way to do so is through respect. I may not love In The Heat of the Night, but I definitely respect it. I may not fully support its Oscar win, but I certainly don't begrudge it.
In The Heat of the Night
Directed by: Norman Jewison
Screenplay by: Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by John Ball)
Starring: Rod Steiger, Sidney Poitier, Lee Grant, Warren Oates, Larry Gates, Beah Richards
Oscar: 5 WINS - Best Picture, Best Actor (Steiger), Best Adapted Screenplay (Silliphant), Best Sound, Best Editing (Hal Ashby). Nominations for Best Director (Jewison lost to Mike Nichols for The Graduate) and Best Sound Effects (lost to The Dirty Dozen)