In the small, sleepy town of Sparta, Mississippi, where they roll up the sidewalks at night, a police officer on a routine, boring nighttime patrol through the downtown stumbles across a dead body, a murdered man. The victim is a rich, white Chicago industrialist who was building a controversial factory in the town. The primary suspect, at least to this cop’s black-and-white eye, is a lone black man, well dressed and carrying a wad of cash, whom the cop discovers waiting at the deserted train station.
The “suspect” out to be Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a Philadelphia cop who just happens to be an expert on homicide. Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger), at the urging of the victim’s widow, grudgingly asks for Tibbs’s help in solving the crime. Poitier’s performance in In the Heat of the Night is brilliant as his calm, competent Tibbs gets to work, dazzling his new colleagues with his ingeniousness and simultaneously enraging them with his “uppityness” — Tibbs always retains his dignity even as his rage and impotence in dealing with these racist yahoos bubbles just below the surface. Likewise, Steiger is fabulous as a man gradually overcoming his prejudices in spite of himself.
Maybe it’s an indication of some slight social progress, or just a marker of how fine a film this is, that In the Heat of the Night also works as a crime-fighting story in a tradition as old as the Sherlock Holmes tales and as new as The X-Files. As Conan Doyle’s upper-class hero clashed with salt-of-the-earth policemen, the refined, cultured, educated Tibbs must contend with small-town cops with small minds — not just concerning racial attitudes but also over newer, more sophisticated, more successful methods of crime solving. As in The Silence of the Lambs and frequently on The X-Files, a big-city investigator arrives in a small, unsophisticated town and employs scientifically based detection methods that can appear almost supernatural to backwater cops. Afraid not only of being shown up, the locals may fear the appearance of being behind the times, less proficient than they might be. The outsider is a professional threat.
When approached from this point of view, the racism of Chief Gillespie and his minions seems all the more ridiculous. Imagine Inspector LeStrade telling Sherlock Holmes, as Gillespie tells Tibbs, that he wishes he could horsewhip the other man.
It is to laugh, is it not?
Oscars Best Picture 1967
unforgettable movie moment:
“They call me Mister Tibbs!” Virgil grinds out when the chief wonders what they call an uppity Negro with a “funny name” like “Virgil” up in Philadelphia.