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1 Year, 100 Movies #75 In the Heat of the Night (1967)

by Trey Hock on September 11, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

I have thoroughly enjoyed the conversation that has developed around my piece on  “Forrest Gump.” It seems a few of you found my analysis compelling, and I appreciate all who read or commented on the post.

“Forrest Gump” was the 25th film on the list from 100 to 1, which means that we’re now moving into the second quarter of the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list. In scanning the list, films #75 to #51 look more complex, more important, and therefore potentially more controversial. I hope that all of the readers are enjoying the trip so far, and for the most part it looks like the films will just continue to get better and better.

Movie #75 starts the second quarter of the list off with a tense bang. “In the Heat of the Night” is a film about racial tensions in a small southern town in the 1960s. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a police officer from Philadelphia. He is passing thorough Sparta, Mississippi after visiting family, and while waiting for the train to Memphis, he is brought in on suspicion of murder.

Once Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) accepts that Tibbs is in fact a police officer and not a suspect, he also sees an opportunity for solving the case. The murder victim was an important man, who was going to build a factory that would bring jobs to the community. As a homicide officer, Tibbs could assist a small town department that is out of its depth in regards to the case. But an intelligent black man, who is perceived as in charge of a criminal investigation, is an unwelcome guest in this rural community.

Tibbs is led by a sense of justice and his own conscience to pursue the case. In spite of a police department that is looking for easy answers, Tibbs soldiers on. Here is a moment where a number of officers bring in a suspect, who was discovered with the victim’s wallet. (Sound begins at 10 seconds.)

The argument, which Tibbs makes, is calm compelling and met with ridicule and hostility by the officers and sheriff. This leads us to the one moment that even those who have never seen this film will recognize.

This scene exemplifies why this film is so great. It has both a story and a purpose, and neither one is sacrificed for the other. This is a film about the overt racism that was palpable in the 1960s. It is also a well-constructed murder mystery. By staying true to the mystery, the condemnation of racism comes from the viewer and not a director’s soapbox. By insisting on well developed, racially bigoted and flawed characters, the story becomes uncomfortably real. This is a great example of how a film can make an argument without it unraveling into didactic grandstanding.

The investigation continues and leads to the home of the wealthy Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates). (Sound begins at 5 seconds.)

This moment starts off a chain of events that allow writer Stirling Silliphant, director Norman Jewison, and Poitier to explore Tibbs’ own prejudices. Instead of being a condemnation of his character, the ability to feel prejudice, resentment, and even hatred makes Tibbs real and validates him. When he later is able to see past his own prejudices to get at the truth, it makes his character stronger.

Jewison made a number of films about people stuck in situations where they were largely powerless. “Agnes of God” (1985) and more recently “The Hurricane” (1999) both stand out as examples, but I would claim that neither of those films would have the same impact that “In the Heat of the Night” possessed. It is an incredibly bold film even by today’s standards, and for 1967 it is remarkable.

“In the Heat of the Night” makes me uncomfortable when I watch it. I become anxious whenever I see a just and good character, who is consistently met with arbitrary or unfounded opposition, but that was the racial climate of the times.

I am not of the mindset that we now live in a post-racial society. I feel like that is a term that ignorant members of a dominant culture throw around in an attempt to stop the conversation. Perhaps you disagree, and see “In the Heat of the Night” as an interesting historical document, but one that has little bearing on today’s society. If so, I encourage you to comment, and would love to hear your take. I personally think that this film still has important lessons to teach us, in addition to being a well-told story and a really great movie.

Up Next #74 “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

1 Year, 100 Movies #76 Forrest Gump (1994)

1 Year, 100 Movies #77 All the President’s Men (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #78 Modern Times (1936)

1 Year, 100 Movies #79 The Wild Bunch (1969)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin September 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Every time I think of “In the Heat of the Night,” I think of two things:

1. The scene above where the rich white guy slaps Poitier and Poitier responds by slapping right back
2. The fact that it beat “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” two far superior and way more challenging and dangerous movies, for Best Picture

The slap was huge. Even in a post – Civil Rights Act world, that was a big, big deal and Poitier put in in and fought to keep t there. He’s right. It’s a powerful statement in a not-so-powerful film. The movie feels too safe and drawn out for me. It’s stuck in this weird time nether region between the Hollywood of old and the new Hollywood represented by “Bonnie” and “The Graduate.”

The slap is about the only real dangerous moment in the film. I don’t hate it, I just think it’s too bogged down with stodgy storytelling and a boring murder mystery. And Rod Steiger winning Best Actor over Warren Beatty in “Bonnie and Clyde”, Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”, and Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”? Unforgivable.

And, by the way, where was the nomination for Poitier, who is the best thing in the film? (He also starred in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir, With Love” that year.)


2 Trey Hock September 16, 2010 at 9:41 am

I don’t think there is any doubt that this Best Picture win was political. Think Philadelphia, or even Platoon.

I didn’t feel like the storytelling was stodgy, but it is not as vibrant as The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde. But neither of those films could win. They were too much.

I will defend Rod Steiger a bit. Though he did not give the performance that any of the three others did, he was bold enough to accept a role that many would turn down. His character was so stubborn, racist, and yet somehow complex and human. I’m not suggesting he should have won against Hoffman or Newman, but his performance is solid and the character is tough.

Poitier definitely deserved a nod for In the Heat of the Night, but the role was too edgy for ’67. He could win for his role in Lilies of the Field, because he was a migrant worker/handyman. But to give it to him in a role where he’s in a position of authority, and questioning the social mores of the time? Well that’s more than we could hope for.


3 ben November 16, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Films that take risks are sometimes rewarded with recognition. Sometimes, unfortunately, a film that takes a risk, also chances on shaking the seats of those in their comfort zones.

For its time, In the Heat of the Night, was very risky. While released in 1967, it probably was produced in 1966: a very racially-divided year, especially, in the South.

I think the exchange of slaps, between Tibbs and Endocot is very powerful. And, very risky. It is about as ‘in our face’ as any director or star could have gotten in the 60s.

There is a certain edge that Gillespie keeps, in spite of befriending Tibbs. That edge is what each generation that is slowly bypassed is loathe to let go. To let go is to become ‘the past.’ Ironically, the end shot shows Gillespie carrying Tibb’s bags, a reversal of the master – servant relationship so prevelant in much of the United States, buy, figuring prominently in the South where cotton was king, along with the white man.


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