Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Sidney Poitier in 
In the Heat of the Night

The first thing that strikes you about Sidney Poitier, irrespective of which of his films you are watching, is his steady gaze and unblinking eye. It makes you uncomfortable even if you are nowhere in his picture. If you play who-blinks-first with one of America’s most intense-looking actors, you’ll blink first. I bet he can stare down an owl. It’s a look Poitier has patented in reel life and, I suspect, in real life too. It sits easily on his face.

It’s this unwavering eye that greets small-town police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) who hauls up Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and pins a high-profile murder on him, which goes well with the tagline—“They got a murder on their hands. They don't know what to do with it.” If you don’t catch the culprit, within twenty-four hours of the murder, you fabricate one, like evidence.

Tibbs, a seasoned homicide detective from Philadelphia, is passing through the town when Gillespie orders patrolman Sam Wood (Warren Oates) to arrest him for the murder of a prominent businessman. The police chief is under pressure, as they usually are, to nail the killer–pronto! And so he nails Tibbs without realising who Tibbs is.

Detective Tibbs is let off the hook early on in the film, as the police chief reluctantly calls up his boss in Philadelphia and confirms that he is, indeed, whom he claims to be–a crack homicide sleuth. Gillespie then, equally reluctantly, enlists his help to solve the murder case.

In arresting the detective, Gillespie jumps the gun on two counts: one, to prove he is worthy of his badge, and two, he is prejudiced against blacks. There is an undercurrent of racial tension throughout the film.

But then, racism is a recurring theme in Poitier’s films, notably To Sir, with Love (1967) in which he disciplines an unruly class of largely white students, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) which touches upon the bold subject of interracial marriage at a time when it was outlawed in several US states. In In the Heat of the Night, for instance, Tibbs gets into a lot of trouble, often at the risk of his own life, when he suspects Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), a powerful man in the county.

Tibbs and Gillespie work together and as they make progress, they develop respect for each other, eventually resulting in friendship between the two policemen. Tibbs, of course, hunts down the real killer in the end.

For me, there are two highlights in this movie. One, when Endicott slaps Tibbs for attempting to interrogate him and Tibbs slaps him right back (that one scene sent a powerful message of racial equality during a tumultuous period in US history–the African-American civil rights movement); and two, Detective Tibbs’ unwavering courage in the face of stiff resistance and, more importantly, the manner in which he extracts respect from the very people who were going to incarcerate him.

The Academy Award winning In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison in 1967, is based on the book by John Ball. A must-see.

For more overlooked/forgotten films and a few other reviews, visit Todd Mason's blog at http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com


  1. Always liked him as an actor. He definitely could do intense.

  2. Not at all too late for Overlooked...but, since it's definitely not an overlooked film (over here, anyway), I place it in the Related Matters column...thanks!

  3. Enjoyed your post. I LOVE this film. It's one of my all time favorites. A definite 100 Best of All time. I think it's also my favorite Sidney Poitier film. Certainly my favorite Rod Steiger performance.

  4. True, Charles. Poitier has cut his own path to the cinematic hall of fame.

  5. Ditto, Todd. I'm trying to get the hang of overlooked films.

  6. Thanks, Yvette. I can't decide which Poitier film I like best. Rod Steiger does put in a fine performance in this movie.

  7. Certainly an important movie and one that works extremely well with a fantastic cast and a great cameo by the undervalued Lee Grant as the grieving widow. It departs quite a lot from the novel in the latter stages of the plot but like the British movie VICTIM is a great example of a conscience raising movie about social problems shrouded as a mystery movie. Great choice, forgotten or not.

  8. Thanks, Sergio. There are so many fascinating elements to a book or film that you don't know which one to write about and which one to leave out. Yes, Lee Grant as Mrs. Colbert has a short but memorable role.

  9. I must look this one up. The only Poitier movie I've seen is To Sir with Love but I've been meaning to watch Cry, the Beloved Country too.

  10. I'd like to see this one, it sounds so good.

    I recently watched The Defiant Ones where Poitier co-stars with Tony Curtis. I plan to write about it soon on my blog, but basically they're two escaped convicts from a chain gang who are actually chained together, and they need to depend on each other to survive. Both Poitier and Curtis are so intense; they fight, go at each other's throats, and have long interesting conversations. That movie also has themes speaking out against racism.

  11. Poitier is one of my all-time favourite actors and, I think, I've seen nearly all his films. I'm sure you'll like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, Che. I haven't seen CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY.

  12. Welcome HKatz! Now that you mention it, I remember watching THE DEFIANT ONES a long time ago. In fact, certain scenes from the film are still vivid in my mind. I look forward to reading about it on your blog.