In the Heat of the Night


Review by Dick Sheppard

I wasn’t old enough to remember any movies from 1967, although I have seen two of the Academy Award “Best Picture” nominees, as I suspect most even casual movie viewers have. Those two 1967 nominees would be Bonnie and Clyde, and The Graduate. More of you might have seen another 1967 Best Pic nominee Cool Hand Luke (I’ve seen about half of it, but my late Pops says that if you ever want to see the best fictional representation of a chain gang, that is the movie to see.) If you asked me (and likely most casual film viewers) what year any of these pictures were released, or even if they were released in the same year, that would likely be unanswerable trivia.

These three nominated films are mentioned because I happened to catch 1967’s “Best Picture” winner the other night, and that picture was, In the Heat of the Night. In addition to winning the Best Picture Oscar, Rod Steiger won Best Actor, and the film also picked up several other Oscars. Sidney Poitier could have been nominated, most say and I might not argue (at least not over the nomination, definitely over him winning), for either Best Actor or Supporting Actor. Mr. Poitier had previously won Best Actor, the first black to do so, for Lilies of the Field in 1963. This was Steiger’s only Academy Award although he had been nominated in a previous film, The Pawnbroker.

Like Figure Skating

For the life of me, I can’t see Steiger being Best Actor in this In the Heat of the Night role as Sheriff Bill Gillepsie. Not against Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, and not against Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Maybe there was some woman’s figure skating judging rationale going on, that Dustin and Warren would have to pay their dues like those 14-year-old dames who rocket onto the scene and are better than the 18- 20-year-old hags who are more established and therefore get the scores. Warren and Dustin eventually won Oscars; Warren’s for Best Director for the commie-chic revolutionary epic Reds. I can’t comment on Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, having never watched the entire film. Perhaps these three cancelled one another out and Steiger was the plurality winner. I wasn’t overly impressed.

Because from the first moment Steiger appears on screen - and supposedly a character’s first appearance is a critical first impression – his Sheriff Gillepsie is a dopy pain in the rear. First of all, he’s exaggeratedly chewing gum. He looked like he was doing the method-acting version of chewing gum, it was so over-the-top. I couldn’t and can’t figure out the significance of this slurping matriculation. Steiger’s character is a sheriff, but in uniform he looks very much like Honeymooner bus driver Ralph Kramden. In some scenes you can see this uniform includes some of the corniest looking boots you’ll ever see; what the hell was the effect supposed to be? Steiger’s sheriff does not seem to be written as a stone Bull Connor rascist, but Steiger plays the supposedly redneck lawman as more dopey than evil, menacing, or ignorantly racist. So when Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs shows up, a polite, dignified homicide detective in a sharp suit, you never get any kind of menacing tension. A little ball-busting tension, but hardly crackling. Having not read the novel that this movie is based on, I suspect the racial angle therein was harsher. And that as with most novels-to-movies, the “book was better.” Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs character clearly isn’t intimidated in the least by Steiger’s Sheriff Gillipsie, draining some of what I can only surmise was overt racial stereotyping in the novel.

A Distraut, Boozy-Looking Widow

Granted, Steiger can be a redneck hoot, as when he automatically assumes the black Virgil commited the dastardly murder at the center of the solve-it plot. And of course when he finds out Virgil is an ace homicide detective, he really doesn’t want the brother’s help. As it happens he gets talked into it (mostly by the Lee Remick character, who plays a distraught, boozy-looking widow. I love her role herein and she’s hot to boot). Thus the southern redneck sheriff and colored northern detective must team-up to solve a murder amidst some additional stereotyped yokels. There are some scattered n-words throughout, but their effect is more to shock than to menace, which is usually the rationale when that word is used in earnest. It sounded more like minstrel n-words than KKK-hate usage.

The “who-killed-some-dude?” plot is moderately interesting, a few twists and turns. There are times when for no apparent reason but to fan the flames of stereotype, rednecks chase and threaten brother Tibbs, who handles himself with aplomb. Steiger is unconvincing on the few occasions when his sheriff/bus driver acts gruff or hard-ass. Most annoying with the Steiger character is that at some point in the movie he starts wearing yellow-tinted shooting-type glasses. The effect when he wears these glasses with his bus driver-looking sheriff hat is comical. I think they were attempting a hip 60’s effect; it fails. Like Steiger’s annoying gum-chewing, the glasses are distracting and could have you wondering if Steiger’s character - with both yellow glasses and bussy-cop hat - maybe woulda been happier prowling San Francisco instead of Mississippi. 

One of Sheriff Gillespsie’s most appealing traits is that he will arrest anyone on the slightest suspicion that they might’ve committed the murder. This includes the black Tibbs (until he reveals he’s a cop), and some white homey too. At one point, Sheriff Gillespie even arrests a member of his own sheriff squad. How can you not love this casual determination to solve the murder through “arrest-him” convenience? Tibbs, stuffy, proper Tibbs, won’t have any of this fun and keeps stifling Steiger’s charming rushes to judgment which are among his most appealing traits.

Sidney Poitier in High Dudgeon

There is one scene, I think purposely tossed into the movie to demonstrate that the black Tibbs and white Sheriff are making strides toward Racial Harmony. It’s set in the Sheriff’s living room, with Steiger slugging back some hooch and Sidney relaxing with tie loosened. They’re lamenting that they’re both lonely; again, likely a scene included to show something that these two different dudes have in common. The dialogue is so bad and unconvincing, this scene alone should’ve prevented any thoughts of Oscardom. I know it’s a preposterous notion, but I got some serious homeerotic vibes from this scene, and if it were a contemporary movie, doubtless these two forlorn, distant men would’ve been carnally embracing each other to the screaming applause of correct-thinking critics everywhere. Not just Racial Harmony, but Gay Racial Harmony! Heck, maybe this scene was THE scene that put the film over the top for the award-deciders, consisting as it does a Hollywood crowd with licentious sensibilities. The final scene - with Sidney getting on the train out of Redneckville - and Steiger’s sheriff looking “gorgeous” in his bus driver hat and yellow glasses, is feel-good baloney that only the general movie-going public can love. I understand the poignancy of the scene but did not feel it, due largely to Steiger’s inappropriate appearance (bus hat and alarmingly out-of-place glasses) and phoned-in “redeemed redneck” reach-out to Sid – like everything’s cool in the breeze down cotton way, when in 1967 (perhaps even as today), that’s debatable.

I know you’ve seen this whenever Sidney Poitier is mentioned, shown somewhere, receiving an award, or when Hollywood runs clips of famous scenes and need to throw in some color: There’s Sidney Poitier in high dudgeon, declaring, “They call me, MISTER Tibbs!” That line is from this movie. Keep in mind, this isn’t a bad movie, it’s just not as good as some might suppose, as a lofty Best Pic winner. As I conclude this review, I realize that the movie has so much hoke and cliché, that it may be worth viewing again, and beyond, in the hopes of understanding the appeal. Hollywood saw the value of the Tibbs character as portrayed in In the Heat of the Night by resurrecting the detective in two additional movies, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!, about a murdered prostitute, and The Organization, about mob doings. Might be worth viewing, if it falls this way easy.