As a fan of the ‘classics’ part of Film Club’s mission statement of course I was interested in this month’s selection of ‘In the Heat of the Night’ even though I’ve never seen it nor even anything with Sidney Poitier. Perhaps it was the healthy representation of our guest hosts the Winchester branch of the NAACP and the Douglas Alumni Association, but we had quite a crowd for a great classic from 1967.
In the Heat of the Night tells the story of a police detective from Philadelphia, played by Sidney Poitier, who becomes intrigued by and ultimately entangled in a police investigation of a business owner bringing jobs to the small southern town of Sparta, Mississippi. The trick is that the detective is black and everyone on the police force, town council, and most of the town’s populace are white. And they’re not only white, but entrenched in the ever-so non-PC world of the deep south.
The story has a typical slow pace for a film from the 60’s that takes it’s time revealing who might be responsible for the murder, and who the real power base of this town might be which it peppers nearly every scene with the menacing foreboding that Poitier’s character of Mr. Tibbs might not survive long enough to find the killer. Such sequences play as more a game of cat and mouse from car chases to a near beating in an abandoned machine shop without loosing any of the potentially lethal consequences.
Poitier plays his roll as very subdued, emphasizing Mr Tibb’s desire to be the opposite of everything that the white man expects and show him up at every opportunity. The sheriff (played by Ed Steiger) goes from being suspicious of this well spoken drifter in his town to a personal if not a outward respect of Tibbs for the quality of his character while having to maneuver the bureaucracy that his town employs.
Interesting notes for In the Heat of the Night include the following:
-The portrayal of life in a small town. The town council made up of local businesses and moneyed employers.
-With all the racial tension in the film, the M.O. for the story’s murder boils down to class hatred. Someone from the big city came to the country to bring jobs and a boost to the economy and ends up getting killed for it.
-While the original story had Tibbs refusing to react when Endicott slaps him, Poitier would only take the role if Tibbs dealt a retaliatory slap of his own. Before casting the role, the script was true to the original book. Shooting scripts however, were changed to include Me. Poitier’s “request”.
-Most of the story take place with characters complaining about the heat and even has a character walking around her house in 60’s PG style nudity. Real temperatures during filming however, were quite cold. So cold that during a scene late in the film outside the town’s diner, Tibbs, sheriff Gillespe, and deputy Wood all end up breathing smoke from the cool night air even though for other scenes actors sucked on ice cubes to chill their breath.
-Evidently this movie was the first colorized film to be correctly lit for the African skin tones. Up until this point movies had been lit to brightly in an effort to compensate for the darker skin tones which causing features to become less distinct. Haskell Wexler, cinematographer for the film, intentionally toned down the lighting on Poitier’s closeups and feature shots with noticeable results.
And just to prove that even during a review of such a serious movie, I can’t get away from geekdom, the poster for In the Heat of the Night appeared on an episode of Doctor Who back in 1968. In the episode “Web of Fear” it appears in the background of a scene at a subway station. Although the title was changed to “Block-Busters” the rest of the poster is exactly like the original.
In the end, the killer is found, Tibbs finally catches that train, and sheriff Gillespe’s attitudes toward blacks are softened and shifted through his close interaction with Tibbs. Not completely changed, but headed towards equal treatment of man regardless of the color of his skin.
When he’s not driving to work, has his hands in his car and/or house, or is attending Film Club events as an #Awesome13 & #Sweet16 alum, Benjamin can be found listening to podcasts and hoping to start his own one day. Reformed Trekker; self-identified Anglophile; and Anime fan by way of Akira, Ghibli, & Gundam. You can find him on the Film Club Facebook page as well as right here planning his next meta review.