In The Heat of The Night (1967)

- by Orvis Wade

In The Heat of The Night is my all-time favorite drama. The movie, a murder mystery, is set in the Deep South town of Sparta, Mississippi but much of it was actually filmed in Sparta, Illinois. The two main characters are Virgil Tibbs (played by Sidney Poitier) – a black homicide detective from Philadelphia, and Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger)- the gruff white Sheriff of small town Sparta.

In The Heat of The NightThe story begins with Virgil Tibbs returning to his boyhood town of Sparta to visit his mother. He arrives by train at midnight, completes his visit, and is back in the station waiting for the 4:05am train back to Philadelphia. While Tibbs was visiting his mother, the major town developer, Mr. Colbert, is murdered. Colbert had been in the process of bringing a factory to town, which would have boosted the local economy and provide a large number of jobs. While this movie is a murder mystery, it is also a study in human nature, as well as a study of the emotional and political climate of the time. The story is set in the ‘60s; an era when the civil rights movement was in full swing and there are many other subtle stories being told here too. Both Poitier and Steiger are strong male actors and their strengths comes out in the portrayal of their characters.

Tibbs, still waiting at the train station, is arrested by Deputy Sam Wood (played by Warren Oates) and taken to police headquarters. Tibbs is well dressed and is playing it real cool and at the police station we get the first hint that he is highly educated. Sheriff Gillespie asks Tibbs, “What ‘cha hit ‘em wit?” and Tibbs responds with “Hit Whom?” This response, along with bring a well dressed black man, infuriates Gillespie and he yells back with “Whom? What are you, a Northern boy?”

There are so many excellent scenes in the movie. One, of the several that I really enjoyed, is after Gillespie finds out that Virgil Tibbs is Philadelphia’s #1 homicide detective. The Philly chief-of-police offers Tibbs’ services to Sheriff Gillespie for the murder investigation. In this scene we see Tibbs anger at the shabby way he’s been treated but at the same time we see his ego. He really does want to show these small town hicks what he knows. He is extremely professional and very thorough. Despite this, he is taken to the train station and ordered by Sheriff Gillespie to leave town. That is until the widow Mrs. Colbert demands that Tibbs stay and investigate the murder.

Now Sheriff Gillespie has to return to the station, swallow his pride and essentially beg Tibbs to help him. Tibbs also has some pride to swallow and he accepts the request to stay but only after being coerced when Gillespie reminds him Rod Steigerof his chief’s earlier offer. However, Virgil Tibbs really does want to stay and solve this case - that’s what he does for a living, solve murders. So Tibbs stays and the story goes on.

The interesting thing about this movie is way Virgil Tibbs and Bill Gillespie are really the same and also, at the same time, they are different. Both are police officers, both are unmarried, both have tempers, and both want to do a good job. The differences; one is black, one is white, one is educated, one is not, one holds his temper and acts accordingly, one lets his temper out. In one reveling and touching scene; Tibbs is at Gillespie’s house and both men are drinking and talking, actually letting their emotional guard down. Then, in a moment of weakness, Gillespie tells Tibbs he is the first person to ever come to his house - not the first black person (which he is) but the first person. You feel some of Gillespie’s sadness which results in his constant anger. When Tibbs shows a little sympathy, Gillespie’s snaps at him now that he realizes he just confided to another person his loneliness and, for goodness sake, he just did it to a black man. But there is mutual respect between these two policemen. One thing I noticed is that anytime someone attacks Tibbs, whether verbal or physical, Gillespie always came to his defense, to the rescue.

Detective Tibbs gets involved in his own prejudices as well. He has disdain for the rich plantation owner who probably reminds him of an earlier time with his father and how things have changed and are different now (circa 1967). This movie is not just about race, but also about rich and poor, haves and have-nots, and class structure. We have the rich white man on the hill who owns a plantation and did not want things to change; and the middle class man who owns a tractor business (the mayor) and other city leaders. And then we see the working class poor and below: the diner worker, the car mechanic, and the field hands.

Sidney PoitierThe ending of the movie is very interesting because it takes away everything above, including race, and ends on the meaning of respect and morality. And to me this was a little sad because you see that Sheriff Gillespie and Virgil Tibbs actually shared an experience in life that brought them together; an experience that transcended race and class. They were allies thrown together because of circumstances, they did not like each other because of the preconceived prejudices they both possessed but they worked through the anger enough to get the job done and really became close because of it. However remember these are two strong, proud men so they are not going to be hugging each other and getting teary eyed. As the movie ends we see the sadness in their faces with Tibbs on the train returning to Philadelphia and Gillespie slowly walking away from the station.

Rod Steiger won the Academy Award © as Best Actor for his performance in this film. Sidney Poitier had earlier won Best Actor in 1963 for Lilies of The Field. In real life these two award-winning actors were good friends and during filming in Tennessee, where racial tensions were high, Steiger demanded a hotel room with an adjoining door with Poitier and this door remained open at all times to prevent possible harm to his fellow actor.

I feel this movie is a must for everyone to see. Not only for the great acting of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger but for the excellent story line that shows, when it all boils down, that despite our different colors, we are all really just the same.

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