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Sunday, December 24, 2017

In the Heat of the Night

The Oscar for Best Picture for 1967 went to In the Heat of the Night. While Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate may have been too edgy (though Mike Nichols won for directing the latter), and Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner too traditional (even though the latter was about interracial marriage), In the Heat of the Night fell into the right groove. It was about social issues--race, mostly--but it was within the template of the standard murder mystery.

Set in a small town in Mississippi, a prominent citizen is found murdered. The sheriff, Rod Steiger, isn't too keen on modern investigation techniques, and his deputy, Warren Oates, pulls in the first black man he can find. He happens to be Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poiter (in addition to appearing in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Poiter also had another landmark film in '67, To Sir With Love). Tibbs reveals he's a police detective from Philadelphia, and a homicide one as well. Steiger puts aside his racism because he realizes neither he nor his dimwitted force can solve a murder.

The story itself is pretty standard. There are a number of suspects, but Tibbs proves them innocent. He eventually solves the crime, and he and Steiger have come to an understanding, if not a frienship (later the film would be made into a TV series).

What made this film historically important was that it showed Southern racism as something to be almost pitied (Tibbs is threatened thrice by local mobs, but you never get the feeling he's in danger) and presents the black character as the most intelligent and competent. Also, there was "the slap heard round the world," when Poitier questions a white cotton grower, who slaps him. Poitier slaps him right back, a moment of astonishment for conservative viewers and one worth cheering for more progressive viewers. The cotton grower sadly says, "There was a time when I could have had you shot."

Unlike Poitier's character in Guess, Tibbs is not a perfect fellow. He has anger issues, and he realizes he's going after one suspect for personal reasons. In what I think is the best scene in the film, he and Steiger share some food and a beer and talk about the loneliness of the job. Steiger ends it when he thinks Poitier is pitying him.

The film also contains one of the great lines in film history. Steiger says, "Virgil, that's a fancy name for a colored boy. What do they call you in Philadelphia?" Poitier, with as much dignity and righteous anger as he can summon, answers "They call me Mister Tibbs!" That would be the title of a sequel a few years later.

In addition to Best Picture, Sterling Siliphant won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and Steiger won for Best Actor, perhaps a surprise since he won over the recently departed Spencer Tracy. Poitier, out of all those films he was in that year, was nominated for none of them.

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