104 New To Me Movies: In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

Stats

Title: In The Heat Of The Night
Release year: 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Written By: Stirling Siliphant, From The Novel By John Ball
Recommended By: Sidney Poitier passed away last week, AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition
Rating: 5 Stars

Review

Sidney Poitier had one of the most iconic years in the history of cinema in 1967. His three most remembered roles, Mark Thackery in To Sir, with Love, Dr. John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Virgil Tibbs in In The Heat Of The Night. I’ve seen the other two movies more times than I can count. (And did watch them this weekend, upon hearing of Sir Sidney’s death.) But I’d never sat down and watched In The Heat Of The Night and decided to remedy that.

The movie is based on a novel, and tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, a homicide detective from Philadelphia who has the bad luck of waiting for a train transfer on the morning a wealthy real estate developer is murdered in a tiny Mississippi town. Eager to put the matter to bed, the local police figure picking up the strange black man in the train depot is probably fine.

Tibbs manages to keep his cool long enough to not get pinned with the murder, but does get roped into helping solve it. What follows is a beautiful structured detective story, anchored by a stunning slow burn performance from Poitier. All of his natural charm and charisma is pointed toward simmering rage and perfect bodily control.

The one moment where he loses that control, when an old plantation owner, a suspect in the murder, slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him back. Now, in addition to trying to solve a crime in a place that is actively hostile towards him, there’s a bunch of people who are literally trying to kill him.

Tibbs is working with racist but filled with integrity new police chief Bill Gillespie, in a truly incredible performance by Rod Steiger.

Nothing about this movie would work if you didn’t buy Steiger in this role. And if he and Poitier’s chemistry has this really flinty perfection, and as these two men grow to respect (but never like) one another, you feel the flint spark.

The mystery is pretty standard pot boiler/rural noir stuff, but it’s a stunning example of it anchored by these two excellent performances. And I’m very glad I revisited the other two of Poitier’s epic year, to see the differences. He really was the greatest.

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