• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:March 8, 2022

In the Heat of the Night: Virgil and the Rednecks


Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Photo: United Artists

The 1960s are easily dismissed when we’re talking about which movies were recognized at the Oscars. In many cases, those that weren’t have become the true classics, a sign of how Hollywood was changing and the Oscars simply couldn’t keep up with the pace.

However, as with any rule, there are exceptions. This film was director Norman Jewison’s breakthrough, a masterful, vibrant and youthful portrayal of the nation’s struggle with racial conflicts. It won over films that were even better, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde… but this was also the year when Doctor Dolittle was nominated for Best Picture!

A businessman is found murdered
Sparta, Mississippi; a wealthy businessman from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in the small town is found murdered one night in the middle of the street. Police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) orders his men to go look for suspects and it doesn’t take them long to return with a Black man they picked up at the train station. Wearing a suit, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a proper-looking fellow, and as Gillespie is about to find out, he’s also a cop from Philadelphia. Black cops is a new thing to Mississippi, but the mistake still embarrasses Gillespie. However, when he finds out that Tibbs is actually a skilled homicide investigator he asks him to just take a look at the murder victim and see what he can find. Tibbs agrees reluctantly, and is drawn into the investigation…

A tumultuous time
This was the 1960s, a tumultuous time when civil rights activists were getting beaten and killed in the South. Even though there is no Sparta, Mississippi, the movie could still have been shot in the state, but the filmmakers decided against it. Poitier had been cast as Tibbs and he had no desire to go to a place as dangerous for him as Mississippi. A key sequence, the one where Tibbs and Gillespie drive to a cotton plantation, was filmed in Tennessee though. Taking three days to shoot in the South, Poitier allegedly slept with a gun under his pillow. The sequence also became the film’s most famous. Tibbs is questioning the plantation owner who suddenly gives him a slap, but he immediately returns it. Watching a Black man hit a white man on a big screen was a jaw-dropping experience to anyone who saw it at the time.

The scene is still powerful today, especially because of how startling it is to see that plantation owner react the way he does, almost in tears because his God-given right to beat a Negro has been violated. Rarely has a more subtly creepy aspect of racism been caught onscreen. The film is also notable because of cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking way to light Poitier, reflecting his complexion in a more natural fashion than seen before. The movie lets two worlds collide – the racist South and the liberal North, represented by very different police officers who learn a few things from each other (well, at least Gillespie does). Steiger and Poitier deliver some of their best performances ever as the fiercely gum-chewing redneck sheriff and the cool, bookish detective.

Sharply directed and edited, the film builds tension when it comes to the murder case as well, even if its resolution is far from as compelling as the entertaining depiction of Gillespie and Tibbs’s dysfunctional relationship.

The film opens with Ray Charles singing the title tune, a steamy number co-written by Quincy Jones, composer of the movie score. It is a perfect accompaniment to this sweaty Southern drama where the evil ways of the past clash with a more hopeful future, as represented by Poitier’s character. 

In the Heat of the Night 1967-U.S. 109 min. Color. Produced by Walter Mirish. Directed by Norman Jewison. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant. Novel: John Ball. Cinematography: Haskell Wexler. Music: Quincy Jones. Song: “In the Heat of the Night” (performed by Ray Charles). Editing: Hal Ashby. Cast: Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs), Rod Steiger (Bill Gillespie), Warren Oates (Sam Wood), Lee Grant, Scott Wilson, Larry Gates.

Trivia: George C. Scott was allegedly considered for Steiger’s part. Followed by two sequels, starting with They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970), and a TV series, In the Heat of the Night (1988-1995).

Oscars: Best Picture, Actor (Steiger), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actor (Steiger), Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Foreign Actor (Steiger).

Quote: “They call me MISTER Tibbs!” (Poitier)

Last word: “I think it was an important film for its time. I think the timing was right, as Bobby Kennedy said. He told me, ‘This is a very important film.’ I didn’t think anyone was going to come to see it. There were newspapers that wouldn’t take the ad in certain cities. When you’re making a film that has a social comment, I think it’s important that it be at a time that people want to discuss it, and that you never really know. It’s instinct. I was kind of surprised when people reacted to it in such a strong way. Then the nice thing that happened was The New York Film Critics gave it their Best Picture award, and when I accepted the award at Sardi’s who was presenting it, but Senator Robert Kennedy, from New York. As he gave it to me, he whispered ‘See, I told you the timing was right, Norman.'” (Jewison, The Hollywood Interview)



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