A body of a rich man is found on the main street of a small Mississippi town. Bumbling local authorities luckily mistake Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) — a quick witted, sharp-dressed homicide detective from Philadelphia — for a suspect. After being taken in, he is dragged into the investigation and small town politics, butting heads with the police chief, minor rednecks, and rich good ole boys. Virgil makes his way surrounded at all times by potentially violent white supremacists, who resent him for not only being black but also for being successful, with only facts and quick reflexes as he plunges headfirst into town drama.
The setting of the South itself is as much a character as Virgil. The hot weather permeates every scene of In the Heat of the Night with its humidity. There’s squeaking air conditioners and sweat rolling off of everyone. Every backroad is dusty and treacherous. There’s fields of cotton with hunched over weather beaten pickers right before a scenic driveway to a plantation. The broken down desperation is constant. In the Heat of the Night could have simply been a crime movie (at some point I thought to myself that this movie vaguely has the same feel as a really good Columbo episode) but the setting is everything. Virgil is a successful black man in a town run by poor, angry white men. The heat is as oppressive as the prejudice and bigotry.
The setting is hostile. The people are racist. But it’s pretty satisfying to watch Sidney Poitier play a no nonsense successful detective constantly proving everyone wrong and blatantly disobeying people who order him around like a dog, calling him “boy.” One of the best moments of the movie is when a rich racist man slaps him and without hesitation he slaps back. Being from 1967, this feels like such a rallying point: that finally on film a black man can slap back.
During the opening credits, one thing I found kind of surprising is that Hal Ashby edited this film. I wasn’t aware of his editing work, so I was kind of eager to find out what the guy who directed Harold and Maude and Being There could bring to the editing table. It turns out a lot. His quick cuts and the cinematography of Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) result in a movie that’s just as moving technically as it is acting and story-wise.
In the Heat of the Night is a well paced, beautifully shot thriller. Just watching it, you can feel the humid Southern air. Poitier playing a stubborn and heroic bigotry-defying Tibbs is definitely iconic. And even if it weren’t for all of that, it would still be a good crime movie.