To say the least, this is quite a memorable 1, as I’m sure some of you have heard the famous line “They call me Mr Tibbs!” – well, that’s this film, and now we’re going to talk about it.
Based on the book by John Ball and set in present day (1967) Mississippi, USA (in the fictitious town of Sparta, Mississippi), our story revolves around 2 main characters – Virgil Tibbs (played by Bahaman-American actor Sidney Poitier) and Police Chief Gillespie (played by the late Rod Steiger), who get involved in a very unfortunate murder case. The murder victim? Phillip Colbert – a wealthy man from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in Sparta, and in the process, bring a much needed prosperity and jobs to an otherwise backwards part of the state. The murder takes place while Virgil waits to catch a train back to his hometown in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he is the number one Homicide Investigator in their respective police department. While waiting for the 4:05AM train, Virgil is arrested by Sergeant Sam Wood for 3 reasons: 1. He’s out and about at that time of night, 2. he has a lot of money in his Wallet (From being paid $162.93 a week, which in today’s currency is $1,171.34 a week, which, if he worked without holidays comes to $60,909.68 a year), and of course, 3. because he’s black. Assuming Virgil killed Mr Colbert for his money, he’s taken to the station, where Chief Gillespie attempts to arrest him without sufficient evidence, and then fails every time. Gillespie is then put in a position that the racist in him had to put up with – Not only did the Philadelphia Police Chief say that Virgil should stay and help in their investigation (Against the wishes of Virgil, never mind the other policemen and the town’s folk) – but Phillip Colbert’s wife threatens to leave Sparta with all of the engineers if Virgil isn’t on the case (due to the fact that he’s the only 1 who is doing his job of trying to catch the murderer, while the rest of the force looks for an easy scapegoat). From here, we have a murder mystery with convicting interests between Virgil and the town of Sparta.
Now to break the film down.
The Acting is excellent – Everybody does their part incredibly well, especially Virgil and Gillespie, but also Warren Oates as Sam Wood, who portrays the character as a really slippery scumbag (well, to be honest, nearly every white guy in this did a good Slippery Scumbag impression), and it’s difficult to top that performance. As well as Larry Gates as Eric Endicott (A murder suspect who opposed building the factory), who did an awesome job showing a guy who “runs this town” go from a nice elderly man looking after a greenhouse, and into a man whose hatred for blacks makes him look like a 5 year old who didn’t get the toy he/she wanted…It was that face…that desire to kill this man for returning a slap, and knowing he can’t get what he wants anymore. Because his preferred generation was dying, along with its social norms.
The Characters are varied…or maybe not so much. Virgil is obviously the only sane man in town (with the exception of Mrs Colbert), Gillespie and Mayor Schubert sit on the fence of sanity, and the rest of the town is a typical southern town that instantly changes and loses all logic when a black man enters the room. 7 years later, Mel Brooks would turn these sorts of characters into a laughing stock in his film Blazing Saddles – but in 1967, this was still a devastating reality in some parts (Keep in mind, a year after this film was released, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated), and the actors brought out a lot of emotions, especially with the audience. To say the least, the characters demonstrated the ugly face of racism with perfection.
The Story is…excellent, with little to no loopholes. I was literally kept guessing as to what’s going on in the case. But at the same time, the murder case isn’t everything about this story. It tackled a lot of community problems, slowed down to show us the men behind the hatred (Or lack of, some are beasts whether they’re racist or not), and allow us to learn about both Virgil and Gillespie, which is important. The scene were they end up getting drunk was a pretty important and power moment in the film.
Themes covered are pretty evident, along with some not-so evident ones at first glance – and at the same time I feel like I might spoil the mystery if I mentioned them here, so here are some of them: Racism (Obviously), the changing of the times, the condition of this particular part of the country at this time, opportunities, the blurring of lines, class, lies, hatred, justice, truth, and 1 of the main 1s…the importance of a skill had or a skill developed. Because 1 thing this film shows is that skill doesn’t fall on race. It shows that privilege, respect and success are for the skilled, not solely for any particular type of chocolate. So in the end, Virgil’s revenge on the white man for his racism came from his superior skills, which would have come from working hard and working smart. It’s actually an excellent message within the story for anybody seeking revenge of any kind.
The Music was done by Quincy Jones, with the opening theme being sung by Ray Charles (Great tune!). The scores incorporate a mixture of blues with dangerous-sounding strings and wood that were common in thrillers up until the late ’70s (and then used in more modern films for either a throwback or comedic effect), as well as slow strings. There was also a good blend of Bossa nova, blues solos soloing, Jazz Bass, and music that would now otherwise be associated with blaxloitation films or used as samples in Rap music. Either way, it’s a great sounding score that suits the film perfectly.
Cinematography-wise, the film was mostly straight-forward with some rather daring shots in their day. Some of the editing can come across as a little choppy here and there, but most of it works really well.
The filming locations included some shots in Tennessee (particularly the cotton fields), but it was mostly shot in Sparta, Illinois rather than in the Mississippi…and for good reason. After Sidney Poltier was nearly killed by a Klu Klux Klan member while in Mississippi, they chose not to film it there…and even though Tennessee wasn’t as bad, Poltier was still harassed by racist thugs in the state, and he kept a gun under his pillow at night…not a way you want to shoot a film. So it all had to be done carefully.
The mystery itself is great, simple, but not blatantly obvious either. Everything falls into place like dominos, with every possibility having a reason, and yet we still don’t know until the end of it. A lot of suggestions can be made, based on how many murder mystery stories you read or watch – and if you haven’t read the book, then it’s even less obvious.
Would I recommend In The Heat Of The Night? Well, it has been voted as 1 of the 1001 films you should watch before you die, so I say…Yes. They’re right in suggesting this. It’s an excellent film about the Deep South in ’60s USA from an African-American perspective, and one that can provide a lot of food for thought. Definitely worth a look!