One year before the death of Martin Luther King Jr., with the civil rights movement in full swing and the black power movement on the way, Hollywood produced a movie that used the classic Hollywood narrative style that people were used to, but in the service of a story they weren’t used to seeing.
1967′s In the Heat of the Night is a police procedural mystery set in Mississippi, where Philadelphia detective Sidney Poitier and small-town sheriff Rod Steiger are forced to work together on equal terms.
Poitier, who radiates dignity, is a far more experienced investigator, but the prejudices of the South are deeply rooted and he comes up against overt racism at every turn, not to mention the powerful good ol’ boy network.
Sidney Poitier had already won the Best Actor award at the Oscars four years earlier for Lilies of the Field and was a huge mega star, but In the Heat of the Night, new out on Blu-ray, positions Poitier in one tense situation after another, heightened by Haskell Wexler‘s moody cinematography and Quincy Jones‘ jazzy Southern-fried score, which was very different from the traditional symphonic score audiences were used to.
Rod Steiger can be a little over the top, but he also bears the brunt of growth and change in the film. Sheriff Gillespie doesn’t like having to work with Poitier’s Det. Tibbs, but he’s also an outsider in his own way among the elitist ranks of the rich, white aristocracy. One infamous scene has Tibbs and Gillespie driving into a cotton plantation to question one of those very people.
Gillespie touches the lawn jockey out front for good luck, and a black servant is bringing tea into the greenhouse of plantation owner Eric Endicott (Larry Gates). I won’t spoil what happens next, but suffice it to say there is an entire featurette about the scene on the Blu-ray called “The Slap Heard Round the World.”
Today, In the Heat of the Night seems like a slower-paced film than it probably did at the time. There’s plenty of time between the murder mystery for director Norman Jewison to engage in discussions about race, economics, and power structures. What keeps the film from becoming a diatribe is the ever-evolving relationship at its center, especially the moment where Gillespie questions Tibbs’ motives and the reason he’s willing to keep putting himself in danger.
Just to give you an idea of the world during this film’s theatrical release, the Academy Awards were postponed for two days following the assassination of Dr. King. Other films nominated that year were Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, which both feel more modern and dangerous today. When the smoke had cleared, however, In the Heat of the Night had won Best Picture, as well as four other Oscars. Steiger won Best Actor, Hal Ashby won Best Editing, and Stirling Silliphant‘s screenplay took home honors as well.
In addition to “The Slap” featurette, the Blu-ray includes a 20-minute making-of featureete, a 13-minute featurette about Jones and the score, and an informative 2001 commentary track dominated by Jewison and Wexler, with input from Steiger and actress Lee Grant.
The transfer has a grainy quality to it which is par for the course for the time period, but it looks great on Blu-ray. The cover art, on the other hand, jettisons the cool, stylish poster art of the time for a photograph of Poitier in the foreground and Steiger in the background.