In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night, released in 1967, won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Film Editing, Sound, and Writing for Adapted Screenplay. The film is based on a novel by John Ball. Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant, and Warren Oates star in the movie. Norman Jewison directed it. And, its number 75 on my AFI top 100 films.

Reading a little about this movie and all of the awards surprised me since I had never seen the film. I vaguely remembered a TV show called In the Heat of the Night, but I didn’t know it was connected to a movie. When the DVD arrived in the mail the Better Half asked what it was about. I shrugged and said I had to watch it from my list. I got the eye roll. We settled in and watched the movie.

It’s a mystery. Virgil Tibbs is a black man from Philadelphia who is passing through a small town in Mississippi. The night Virgil is sitting in the train station a white man is murdered. A police officer from the town discovers Virgil and immediately takes him to the police station thinking the case is closed. Obviously, a black man waiting at a train station in the middle of the night must have killed the rich white man.

Turns out, Virgil is a police detective. However, the police chief still calls Virgil’s boss to confirm. That’s when Virgil’s life gets more interesting since his boss in Philly instantly realizes that the police in the small Mississippi town are not equipped with investing a murder. He tells Virgil to stay in the racist town to help with the investigation. Not many people are happy about the situation, especially the residents of the town.

This is one of those films that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not going to claim I grew up in an area without racism, but I did experience a very liberal area. I would hear jokes and such growing up. However, I was lucky enough to live in a diverse area and for the most part everyone got along. So when I watch movies like this I just don’t understand how people can treat others like this. When Virgil is arrested at the train station I was thinking, “ You’ve got to be kidding. Why would a murderer sit in a public place reading a book? Wouldn’t he hide?” Also, when the cop orders Virgil into the police car, Virgil doesn’t say anything. He’s resigned to what’s going on. People should not be used to this kind of treatment.

I wish I could say that racism to this degree doesn’t exist anymore. Unfortunately I know that’s not true. I wish I could say that the American justice system has improved vastly, however, my time on a jury proved me wrong.

This is a powerful movie. Not only is the mystery gripping, but the exploration of racial tensions in a small town in Mississippi during the 1960s is eye-opening. If you have not seen the film, I recommend it. I will warn you, it may make you mad—at least I hope it does.

Up next is The Silence of the Lambs. 

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American living in England. When she isn’t writing, she’s traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs, or reading. Not necessarily in that order.
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28 Responses to In the Heat of the Night

  1. Pogue says:

    I watched this movie a long time ago. I think I was to young to see what all was there. I do know that there was something about the movie that I did not like about the movie. I might have to try and rewatch it.

  2. It’s a good film but I remember the sequel ‘They call me Mr Tibbs’ as being really awful. Mississippi Burning is another good film that confronts the same issue.

    • TBM says:

      Mississippi Burning is one of those films that blew me away. Such a powerful film. I should rewatch that one. Hackman was brilliant in it.

  3. Bill Hayes says:

    I was wondering when you would get round to this movie. One of my top 20 movies. A great tag line too…”They got a murder on their hands . . . they don’t know what to do with it.”

    Not a huge spoiler, but if you don’t want to know about the ending in anyway, be careful reading below.

    I think that you have drawn a slightly depressing view of the film’s stoy. At the end, there is redemtion. The focus of the racial tension is played out between Mr Tibbs and the white red neck police chief Gillespie played by one of the greatest modern screen actors of the 20th century – Rod Stieger. Mr Tibbs solves the crime but in process he reveals to Gillespie that his racism is on shakey ground because they become reluctant friends and the racial barrier is broken down between them. I think it is a very positive film.

    Rod Stieger tells the story of him being invited to a producers’ office to discuss a new film some years later. A young Exec said to him.Mr Stieger, can you do a Southern accent?” Stieger replied, “I could give it a try, the last time I did a southern accent I got an Oscar for it!”

    Great movie. Thanks.

    • TBM says:

      Another spoiler alert for those who prefer knowing nothing about the story.

      You’re right, I did gloss over the redemption in the end. When I read your comment I realized that I had done so. Then I started thinking why and I think what stuck out most for me in this movie is the blatant racism of the residents in the town. That really struck a nerve with me. I know it will sound naive, but I don’t understand why people can’t get along. And the fact that in some areas racism still is rampant disgusts me. I’m not just talking about the US–it’s a world problem.

      Thanks for the bit about Rod Stieger. I hadn’t heard that story. Love learning these types of stories. I’m not too familiar with him. Do you have other suggestions for me? Oh and I recently watched the 1935 version of The 39 Steps. I hope to review that one soon.

      • Bill Hayes says:

        He played Brando’s brother in On the Waterfront – the movie that changed how actors played a part on screen. (karl Malden, Eli Waller, Lee J Cobb),. Like in the heat of the night, the film scooped all the oscars that year.

        He made many films, but most notable is Dr Zhivago, Napoleon in Waterloo, and a great performance in “W C Fields and Me” a biopic of the comdey actor. (before seeing this movie you should watch some WC Field’s films first. I could go on for ages about this film, but that’s for later.

        But – you cannot talk of Rod Stieger without mentioning his all time great “The Pawnbroker” he plays a concentration camp survivor trying to cope with a new life in 1960’s Bronx. An astounding performnce – hardley ever shown on the Tv – why I don’t know.

      • TBM says:

        On the Waterfront is on the AFI list but not for a long while. Probably won’t get to it this year. I plan on reading Dr Zhivago this year so might watch the movie after that. I’ve seen some of W. C. Field’s films, but probably not enough. Will add the Pawnbroker to my list. Thanks for the suggestions!

      • Bill Hayes says:

        Another interesting thing about this movie and goes right to the heart of the story is that they couldn’t shoot it in Mississippi because it starred a black man. There was no way he would have survived in that State being treated equally to the white men on the crew. They went down to Louisiana for 3 days – because they had to shoot the cotton plantation scene for real. One night the crew trailers were attacked by racist red necks. Sydney Poitier slept with a gun under his pillow. If he had used the gun in defense, he almost certainly would have been given the death penalty.

        A Black man still has 3 in 4 chance of being given harsher sentence that a white man found guilty of the same crime. There are more black people in Prison today in America than were enslaved before the civil war. Racism is America’s achile’s heel.

        When Virgil Tibbs returns a slap in the face from Endicotte the white Plantation owner, the crack of that slap echoes down the years. When Ray Charles heard that sound in the first rough cut, was the moment he decided he would record the title track.

      • TBM says:

        That’s amazing. I just can’t picture living in a society like that. And all of your facts prove that for many, things haven’t changed all that much. We were talking about racism this weekend and for the two of us, it just seems like a waste. All that time hating people or fearing people just based on skin color. Thanks for sharing all the tidbits. All valuable information.

  4. jmgoyder says:

    I don’t think I’ve seen it!

  5. I felt similar feelings while watching Lincoln. How can people possibly think like that just because of a person’s skin colour. I always like to say that all of our parts are the same, and we all have the same beating heart inside. It’s just like we are wearing a different coloured jacket. Who the hell cares right? By the way, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who gets the “eye roll”. LOL!! 🙂

    • TBM says:

      I get the eye roll all of the time. I bet is good at it and your boys. I’m with you Cindy, I don’t understand why we can’t all just get along. I’m not saying we should be best friends with everyone, but respect and common decency goes a long way. And no snap judgments based on skin color.

  6. Caroline says:

    I think I’ve seen this and liked it. It does make me feel uncomfortable too. I watched another movie with Sidney Poitier and Katherine Hepburn recently – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It was hilarious but a bit daring too. Have you seen it?

    • TBM says:

      I love that film. It did push the boundaries for the time period and is still quite relevant for today. Hepburn is one of my favorite actresses of all time. Such a beautiful, intelligent, and remarkable woman.

  7. mairedubhtx says:

    I have seen this film. Like you, it makes me uncomfortable because of the prejudice in the film. My mother was from the South and I experienced that type of prejudice from my relatives (and my mother) even though I was raised in a liberal area in the Northeast. It always made me uncomfortable and I had many fights with my mother over civil rights. I remember those very clearly. She would say things were moving too fast and you couldn’t expect people to just accept changes so fast. I would say it isn’t right to deprive people of their basic rights. We never did see eye to eye.

    • TBM says:

      I’m sorry that you felt this on such a personal level. It must have been hard for both you and your mother. Change can terrify many people and even when they know the change is for the better it still is hard to make that leap. Thank you for sharing your story.

  8. i’ve seen this film more than once, and it is terrible to realize that things haven’t changed much for some people. the tv series based on the film did a decent job of exploring some of these topics, but there’s just something focused about the film.

  9. The Hook says:

    Great choice! An underrated classic!

  10. AussyDog says:

    I had to read this book in junior high. One of the only books to make me so angry that I wanted to just yell and scream at their ignorance. It was also one of the few books that I was “forced” to read for school…and in the end really enjoyed =P

    • TBM says:

      The movie made me scream–I just don’t get how people can treat other people this way. I’m glad you enjoyed the book, even if it made you mad.

      • AussyDog says:

        I guess that’s the point really. Even though it had been on the banned book list my English teacher pushed for us to read it. It’s one of those books that can shape a young mind and make them state emphatically “No I will not be that ignorant. Never.”

      • TBM says:

        It’s a valuable lesson to learn at a young age.

  11. petit4chocolatier says:

    Excellent summary. I watched this movie a long time ago. Looking forward to your Silence of the Lambs summary! One of my favorites 🙂

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