By Matt Brunson
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)
DIRECTED BY Norman Jewison
STARS Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger
That 1967 marked a turning point in motion picture history can be evidenced by merely glancing at the five films nominated that year for the Best Picture Oscar. On one hand, there was The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, two electrifying motion pictures that signaled a bold new direction in American cinema; on the other, there was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle, two badly dated embarrassments that tried (and failed) to retain Old Hollywood charm in a changing world. In hindsight, it's not surprising that the winner turned out to be In the Heat of the Night, which expertly straddled the line by relating an old-fashioned murder-mystery in a jazzy new style.
Sidney Poitier stars in his most iconic role as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective who reluctantly agrees to help redneck sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) solve a crime in the racist town of Sparta, Mississippi. Despite constant threats to his well-being, Tibbs rarely loses his cool, navigating his way through a complicated case while suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous good ole boys (Tibbs' rapid-fire slapping of a racist community leader, played by Larry Gates, remains a classic scene).
For his part, Gillespie begins to respect the Northern cop, though director Norman Jewison and scripter Stirling Silliphant never betray any of the characters' ingrained prejudices by having these traits vanish into thin air. Warren Oates (as a deputy) and Lee Grant (as the victim's wife) are among those contributing indelible portrayals, while Quincy Jones provides a score that perfectly complements the flavorful atmosphere. Along with Best Picture, this also won Oscars for Best Actor (Steiger), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing and Sound.
(In the Heat of the Night, part of the Main Library's Black History Month Film Series, will be screened at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19., in the Francis Auditorium of the Main Library. Admission is free. Details: 704-416-0252.)