Southern Movie 12: “In the Heat of the Night”

In honor of Black History Month, this month’s movie is 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, one of the seminal Southern Civil Rights movies. At the time this film was made, its star Sidney Poitier was at his peak— The Defiant Ones, Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field, Patch of Blue, and To Sir, With Love were all behind him, and still to come were the groundbreaking Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the mystical Brother John. In this one, Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia homicide detective stuck in small-town Mississippi, where he casts an embittered pall over a murder investigation by the police chief, Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger. The chemistry between the two characters carries all the weight of Southern change with it, offering no easy answers.

We meet Virgil Tibbs a short ways into the film, after we spend a few moments tagging along with ne’er-do-well police officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) who is cruising through the late night shift. Until Sam rolls up on a dead body in the middle of their sleepy downtown, the most exciting things that happen to him are spying on a topless girl through her open window and being perplexed the local diner boy hiding the pie from him. After the discovery of the body, which turns out to be Colbert, an industrialist who has come to town to build a factory, Gillespie orders Sam to search high and low for the killer, who can’t be far off. And who does Sam find? A black man, a stranger in town, sitting alone the train depot, with a wallet full of cash.

Much to the chagrin of all involved, Virgil is the wrong man. And not only is he the wrong man, he is a homicide expert whose big-city chief tells him to stick around and help the small-town force to find the killer. The complexities of segregation ride along with the two police men: who will assist the black man performing the autopsy on a white man’s body in a white mortuary? why is Virgil riding in the front seat of the patrol car?

The second wrong suspect they arrest is Harvey, a local loser who is found with the dead man’s wallet, but Virgil knows better when he arrives among the slew of white officers who are congratulating each other with toothy grins and slaps on the back. Harvey is left-handed, and the killer was right-handed, Virgil tells them, having struck the victim on that side. After the dead man’s wife questions the sad moral state of the town, and after Virgil refuses to relinquish the evidence from the autopsy, he and Gillespie have to keep working.

In one of the most exhilarating scenes in all of movie history, Virgil insists that he be allowed to face down the local “fat cat,” the aristocratic cotton baron Endicott. Wedged in the soles of Colbert’s shoes, he has found osmunda, a substance not normally found in walking-around Mississippi; it is  used to root “air plants,” like ferns or orchids. And what do they find Endicott’s greenhouse loaded with? Orchids. The scene begins with Endicott’s polite condescension, but it quickly turns nasty when Virgil’s tone becomes accusatory. The old white man slaps the black detective— who slaps him right back! No one in the room knows what to do, all are frozen in time, until Endicott proclaims in a grumble, “There was a time when I could have you shot.”

If having Virgil Tibbs there, in a Deep Southern small town doing police work, was already precarious, now it’s downright dangerous. After the face-off with Endicott, everything has gone awry. Even Sam, the wayward police officer, has become a suspect, because of a large deposit of cash into his bank account. Another plot strand emerges, too, when the topless girl from the opening scenes is dragged into the police station by her brother, who claims that Sam has gotten her pregnant. Then the conflict widens when Virgil is chased by white racists into an abandoned auto shop, where Gillespie narrowly rescues him.

But Virgil is so close to finding the truth. The two men retire to Gillespie’s little house for a whiskey and a talk, during which the private tensions of integration surface; the two men’s egos struggle, push and pull, with a mixture of testy defensiveness and delicate cooperation.

In the end, Virgil instigates the finale when he goes alone to face down the killer in the middle of the night, trying to surprise him at the shop of the local back-room abortionist. There, the tangled web shows its full intricacy. Everyone shows up: the pregnant girl, the girl’s brother, the cafe boy who hides the pie, the gang of racists. Virgil finds himself in the middle of circular firing squad.

I’ve probably already ruined enough of the story, so I won’t tell you how Virgil manages the scene. But he does. Sorry, but I have to spoil that. Gillespie sees him off on the train, both men struggling against the bonds of their tenuous friendship.

The Harvard Crimson‘s 1967 review of In the Heat of the Night argues that this movie succeeds in its characters but fails as a mystery, remarking also that Poitier “ends up doing just what he has done in his last dozen interchangeable movies.” I disagree about the mystery part; I didn’t see the end coming the first time I watched it. However, the criticism of Poitier’s characters from this period being “interchangeable” is a fair assessment. But, on the flip side, the movie won a slew of awards: Oscars in 1968 for Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), and Best Screenplay Adaptation; Golden Globes in the same three categories; and more from BAFTA, New York Film Critics Circle, and the Grammys.

As a nugget from the quasi-historical mythic South, In the Heat of the Night does succeed in intermingling some very real aspects of that culture, and not justice racial tensions: the need for industrial development to remedy high unemployment, a suspicion of outsiders (even those who bring good things), corruption and indifference among small-town police, mob violence in handling disruptions of the status quo,  and unofficial kinds of power held by wealthy elites. The movie also manages to maintain the humanity of the characters, while still having them be symbols. Rather than having Gillespie and Sam and the other officers be cardboard cut-out Southern villains, they have real flaws and exhibit profound levels of conscience; we even see Virgil display Northern prejudices against Southern culture, uncomfortable truths that Gillespie calls attention to more than once. This movie is (thankfully) so much more than black-good/white-bad.

I can’t lie: In the Heat of the Night is one of my favorite movies.

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