Wednesday 16 January 2019

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

I nattens hede
I always feel a bit odd when it comes to racism in America. I am not American and do not have that first-hand experience to understand the subject and, really, the best course for me would be to abstain from such a, likely sensitive, subject for which I have insufficient understanding. Unfortunately, it is just not possible to discuss a movie like “In the Heat of the Night” without getting into racism. It is very much at the center of that film.

This thing about racism against black people has always baffled me. From a European perspective black people and black culture is an integral part of America and to think of it as something separate and of lesser worth is just… weird, yet, in the mid-sixties, twenty years after the wake-up call that was Nazi Germany, comes along “In the Heat of the Night” and throws a spotlight on rampant racism.

In a small Mississippi town, a man gets killed in the night and the police does not hesitate to arrest a stranger on the train station and pin the murder on him. It is understood that the fact that the man is black makes him without question guilty. In a truly amazing scene the black guy (Sidney Poitier) turns out to be a Philadelphia police officer in town to visit his mother and the astonished Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) learns, when he contacts Virgil Tibbs’ boss, that Tibbs is a homicide expert and the best he got. In your face!

Gillespie and indeed most of the town are eager to get rid of this black guy who carries himself with a pride they are not used to and do not like. Obviously, a black guy who does not grovel before them needs to learn his place and get out of town. Tibbs is more than happy to leave, but Gillespie finds out that he needs Tibbs and Tibbs himself finds that he needs to find the murderer.

Keen to solve the case Gillespie keeps finding new targets to pin this murder on, but Tibbs is not free of his own prejudices and is ready to pin it on the rich planter of the town, old white aristocracy. Their relationship, Gillespie and Tibbs, is turbulent, they need each other but despise what the other stand for, yet in the process the gain a mutual respect. Grudging at first, but it grows, and that relationship is the heart and soul of the movie. Sure, there is a murder case, but it takes second stage and when it is finally resolved it seems almost unimportant.

“In the Heat of the Night” is an awesome movie. It takes you places, and it is committed to the story it wants to tell and that story feels important. It is also a movie where everything works. The acting of course is stellar. The cinematography is spot on, you feel the heat and you feel the discomfort and the oppression. The plot movies forward fast enough to keep me on the edge of my seat, but the stand out item must be the scoring by Quincy Jones. This would not have been half the movie without it, and it points the way to how movies were scored in the seventies.

The thing that makes “In the Heat of the Night” so exceptional however is the spotlight it throws on racism. Undiluted bigotry on an unimaginable scale. The timing is perfect, smack in the middle of the whole civil rights process and this movie must have made a splash in its time. To me, as an outsider, this is just unbelievable, what is wrong with these people, and I wonder how it must have been for an American watching it back in its day.  

And yes, this is a 1967 movie and I am not done with 1966, but my (ancient) edition of the Book places it as a 1966 movie and this was simply the next movie to watch. But what a break from 66! I can only recommend this movie and so did the Academy: Five awards including Best Picture.



  1. The thing that is so easy to miss here is something you touched on--Tibbs has his own prejudices. This plot would be over in an hour if he weren't blinded by the racism he experiences and not desperate to pin the crime on the town's leading bigot. It's a hell of a smart film for exactly that reason.

    1. I like it very much when movies add complexity to the story. The real world is multi-dimensional, consisting of people with their own agenda and flaws. This one could have been simplified, but it was not and is so much the richer for it and it actually helps drive home the point. A smart movie indeed.

  2. "They call me MR Tibbs". Love this movie and your review nails why.

    1. It is a movie full of one-liners. My personal favorite is when he snarls: I am a police officer!