Directed by Norman Jewison (Moonstruck, The Hurricane), In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars in 1967: Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Best Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant), Best Editing (Hal Ashby), and Best Sound. Nearly fifty years later, the film is still a powerful moral drama and a fascinating character study.
The story begins when wealthy Chicago businessman Philip Colbert, in town to build a much need factory, is found dead; lying in the middle of a road in the middle of the night. Police think they have their man when they pick up Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black stranger, waiting at the train station. Tibbs has an impressive amount of cash in his wallet, and racist police Chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger) quickly decides that Tibbs must have stolen the money from the murder victim. Needless to say, Gillespie and his officers are shocked and embarrassed to find out that Tibbs is a Philadelphia homicide detective simply traveling through Sparta, Mississippi to visit his mother. Though Virgil wants nothing more than to get out of town as soon as possible, his own Chief, after questioning whether Tibbs himself is prejudiced, asks that he stay and help solve the murder.
At first reluctant to accept Tibbs’ help, the Chief is given little choice when Colbert’s widow (Lee Grant) insists he be put on the case and the killer found, or else she will cancel plans to build the factory. The town’s racist mayor (William Schallert) sees it as a win-win for Gillespie. He can use Virgil’s expertise to find the murderer and take all the credit for himself; if the murderer can’t be found, all the blame can simply be put on the Negro. As the investigation begins, a few suspects are cleared simply due to Tibbs’ thoroughness in conducting a homicide investigation. Gradually, Tibbs and Gillespie realize they’re going to have to really work together to solve the crime. While Tibbs has homicide expertise, Gillespie understands the town of Sparta and its residents.
Director Norman Jewison brought two important things to the film—pacing and visual detail. The first half of In the Heat of the Night proceeds at a gentle pace, allowing the relationship between Tibbs and Gillepsie to grow and evolve as they interact more. Long takes are often used to express a new level of understanding between the two men. Once it’s clear htat Tibbs and Gillespie are finally on the same page, Jewison picks up the pace, with a car chase, very tense factory confrontation, and the resolution. In the midst of all this are reminders of the deep South and the racial divide—the grand mansions, their white owners and black servants.
The cast of In the Heat of the Night is uniformly excellent. Though Rod Steiger’s performance is over-the-top on occasion, his portrayal of Gillespie really captures the essence of a loud, racist Southern lawman who gradually begins to rethink his beliefs. He is ably matched by Sidney Poitier who gives a quieter but strong performance as Tibbs. Though provoked at nearly every turn, he never allows any of his tormentors to feel they got the best of him. Nor will he be cowed by any man who attempts to put him “in his place.” Particularly memorable is the meeting between Tibbs and Endicott, the old-school owner of the cotton plantation who is a suspect in the murder investigation. Endicott believes he still exists in the days of the master-slave relationship between whites and blacks, but he is rudely awakened when he slaps Tibbs and immediately gets slapped back. Lee Grant very ably handles the secondary role Mrs. Colbert, bringing a depth of understanding to being a sudden and unexpected widow.
Presented in the 1.85 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer looks a bit rough around the edges when the credits begin, but a few minutes in and it becomes clear that some level of restoration has been done. The film looks as good as I’ve ever seen it, showing detail that certainly wasn’t evident in the DVD release. There is some softness in a few scenes, but edge delineation is strong and black levels are good.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track is quite rich, offering nice channel directionality and well prioritized dialogue. Quincy Jones’ score kicks in nicely when called upon, and the ambient sounds are discernible throughout.
English SDH, French, and Spanish are available.
The following extras are included:
- Commentary with Director Norman Jewison, Director of Photography Haskell Wexler and Actors Rod Steiger and Lee Grant: Spliced together from separate interviews, this is a solid commentary that offers both behind-the-scenes tidbits, and technical information about how the film was made.
- Turning up the Heat: Movie-Making in the 60’s (SD, 21:10) A discussion of filmmaking in the 1960’s. Interviewees include: Norman Jewison, Haskell Wexler, producer Walter Mirisch, Quincy Jones and more.
- The Slap Heard Round the World (SD, 7:25) Many of the same interviewees from above return to discuss the famous ‘slap’ scene.
- Quincy Jones: Breaking New Sound (SD, 13:02): Quincy Jones, Norman Jewison, musician Herbie Hancock and others discuss the soundtrack for the film. Also interviewed are Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who wrote the lyrics for the title track sung by Ray Charles.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD,2:48)