Director Norman Jewison
Starring Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant
Released 18th November 2016
As the BFI launched its Black Star season this week, it published the result of a public poll to find the best black performance from film or TV. In truth, the winner was no great surprise: Sidney Poitier in In The Heat Of The Night. It also contains what is probably his most famous line, as well as one of the best-known in cinema history, but the film is bigger than just his declaration of “They call Me Mister Tibbs!”
In the small Mississippi town of Sparta, the pressure is on Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) when a dead body is discovered. He has to find the killer PDQ. It’s not long before there’s a suspect behind bars, a black man who was minding his own business at the railway station. But he’s the first of a series of false starts because he’s homicide cop, Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), on his way back home to Philadelphia and just changing trains. Once out of jail, his boss suggests he might want to offer his services to the local guys to solve the murder, so he finds himself working with people who make no attempt to disguise their hostility and prejudice.
Released in 1967, when the American civil rights movement was almost at its height, this was the big Oscar winner of the year and also had its finger firmly on the pulse. It’s re-release as part of the BFI season comes just short of its 50th birthday and it’s no less relevant now. At a very basic level, it’s a police procedural, but the murder is really just a mechanism to bring Tibbs and Gillespie, and what they represent, head to head. Your eyes are always on Poitier and Steiger, who are hardly ever off the screen, either individually or together. Their scenes crackle with animosity, bordering on hatred, with Poitier’s Tibbs barely keeping his anger and outrage under control and Steiger delivering his lines with the ferocity of a fully loaded machine gun.
The overt racism displayed by the police, the town’s mayor and its powerful businessman is just as uncomfortable to watch today as it was in the late 60s. Worse still are the local rednecks, who corner Tibbs in a dis-used factory with only one aim in mind. Jangling chains have never sounded more threatening. And the fact that the town is called Sparta prompts the idea that it could be seen as the last bastion of racism in the Deep South. That wasn’t Jewison’s intention. It was simply because it was film in Sparta, Illinois, and it was easier and cheaper not to change the town’s signs. But they couldn’t have invented a better name.
The film still hits you right between the eyes. The performances, the story and the taut direction are still as powerful as they ever were. Only now it poses an additional, and depressing, question. Have we learnt nothing in the past half century?
In The Heat Of The Night is in cinemas now and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 17 November.