Starring Academy Award winners Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger and Lee Grant, this provocative mystery thriller won five 1967 Oscars including Best Picture. Highlighted by an evocative score from Oscar-winning composer Quincy Jones, In The Heat Of The Night is a "powerful film" (The New York Times) that delivers the "highest level of exciting entertainment" (New York Daily News)!
While traveling in the deep south, Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia homicide detective, becomes unwittingly embroiled in the murder investigation of a prominent businessman when he is first accused of the crime -- and then asked to solve it! Finding the killer proves to be difficult, however, especially when his efforts are constantly thwarted by the bigoted town Sheriff (Steiger). But neither man can solve this case alone. Putting aside their differences and prejudices, they join forces in a desperate race against time to discover the shocking truth.
"They call me Mister Tibbs!" stands as one of cinema's most memorable and passionately delivered lines, but the power emanating from that strongly stated retort stems not just from a disrespected character's indignation over racial bigotry, but also from the nerve those words struck in people all across the country and how they reflected monumental social changes. Blacks rarely confronted Southern whites during the 1960s, but the Civil Rights Movement began breaking down barriers, and 'In the Heat of the Night,' a searing indictment of prejudice disguised as a murder mystery, sought to prove achieving common ground is possible, and racial harmony might not be such a far-fetched idea after all. Norman Jewison's film signaled a changing tide in U.S. race relations, as African-Americans began to forcefully assert themselves and stand up to domineering whites. To quote a movie that wouldn't be made for another nine years, blacks were mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore.
Thankfully, we've come a long way since 1967, so the visceral impact of 'In the Heat of the Night' has significantly diminished over time. More of a period piece than a finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-public drama, this engrossing, meticulously constructed production still strikes a chord, because race remains a hot-button issue. Though the film isn't nearly as shocking as it surely must have seemed back in 1967, its core elements remain affecting, and ironically, from our removed vantage point, some of the behavior depicted seems more disturbing today than it did 35 years ago, merely because it's hard to believe people really acted in such a reprehensible manner.
Perhaps because of its topicality - or maybe in spite of it - 'In the Heat of the Night' won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967. The steamy drama shines a spotlight on issues the film industry seemed reluctant to tackle, and it's easy to see why. Tensions ran so high during that turbulent period, the movie's star, Sidney Poitier, probably the most renowned African-American in the U.S. after Martin Luther King, Jr., refused to shoot the picture on location in Mississippi, for no other reason than it was too dangerous. (Illinois was used instead, although Poitier did finally agree to shoot briefly in Tennessee, so a crucial cotton-picking scene could be authentically filmed.) Almost from the get-go, Stirling Silliphant's Oscar-winning screenplay depicts that uneasy atmosphere in the fictional community of Sparta, Mississippi, where blacks are constantly under suspicion and dutifully live their lives as second-class citizens unwilling to stand up for themselves because they fear their white superiors will unfairly target and retaliate against them.
Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) knows this world well. Though he's a proud, successful, intelligent, and self-assured man, he's aware of the rules and keeps his head down. But after a local businessman is found dead in the street, an overzealous police officer (Warren Oates) discovers Tibbs patiently waiting for a train at the local depot, and, without any evidence other than the color of his skin, fingers him for the crime. When he's brought before the town sheriff, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), a blustery, gum-chewing bigot who runs his force with an iron hand, Tibbs reveals to everyone's surprise that he's a northerner and - get this - a Philadelphia police detective who was just innocently changing trains at the Sparta station.
After his identity is confirmed, Tibbs, who's also conveniently a homicide expert, is commanded by his Pennsylvania bosses to remain in Sparta and assist in solving the whodunit, much to Gillespie's chagrin. Working with a loud-mouthed, hot-headed, and unapologetically bigoted police chief is distasteful to Tibbs, and Gillespie can barely stomach taking directives from a black "boy" whom he knows is smarter, more polished, and more skilled than he. Yet this odd couple forms a tenuous partnership fraught with periodic head-butting, and as they become more intimately involved, each earns the other's grudging respect.
The success of 'In the Heat of the Night' hinges not on the cohesiveness of the murder mystery plot (which I found too preciously constructed and mechanically executed), but on the incendiary chemistry between Poitier and Steiger, who often spar like two heavyweight fighters, circling each other in the ring, then pouncing when one lets down his guard. They make quite a pair, but surprisingly their finest scene together isn't a heated exchange, but rather an intimate, low-key discussion about loneliness, family, and dedication to a thankless job. Steiger won a Best Actor Oscar for his riveting, no-holds-barred portrayal; while he's always fun to watch, too often histrionics overshadow his performance. Poitier is more restrained, though at times it seems as if the mantle of "America's foremost black actor" weighs him down and lends his work an affected quality that detracts from its believability.
Aside from the "Mister Tibbs" line, Poitier's most memorable and influential moment occurs when he's summarily slapped by an uppity white business magnate during a casual interrogation. Without missing a beat, Tibbs retaliates in kind, striking the man across the face with double the force and sending a message not just to the character, but also to the audience at large that African-Americans aren't going to be pushed around, condescended to, or abused by whites or anyone else anymore. Black Power may not have been born at that particular instant, but Poitier's knee-jerk reaction made a bold statement that resonated and took root among an oppressed race that clamored for equality. (There remains some disagreement over whether Poitier's slap was actually in the original script or something the actor improvised. Whatever the case, it stands as the movie's most shocking and compelling moment.)
'In the Heat of the Night' most likely won the Best Picture Oscar for what it says, rather than how it says it. Movies like 'The Graduate' and 'Bonnie and Clyde' may possess more artistry, but the rhetoric pales in comparison. For once, substance trumped style, and though this fine film may not pack the punch it surely did in the 1960s, it's still a meaningful and important movie.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'In the Heat of the Night' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the movie begins immediately; the menu can only be accessed via remote.
A nicely restore picture distinguishes this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Fox that maintains the film's original grain structure yet sports enhanced contrast and clarity. A distinct film-like appearance makes viewing a pleasure (though some scenes look more textured than others), and only a few errant dots and blotches sully the largely pristine source material. Much of 'In the Heat of the Night' was shot on location in Illinois (Poitier was understandably reticent to cross the Mason-Dixon Line), and exteriors exude a surprising richness and depth, thanks to the keen eye of cinematographer Haskell Wexler ('One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'), who experimented with zoom lenses and handheld cameras to achieve a natural, immersive look. Many scenes transpire at night, and lush black levels enhance them, yet crush is rarely an issue, even during the darkest moments. Whites are crisp and stable, and fleshtones are spot-on. (Wexler was the first cameraman to realize black actors require different lighting to appropriately capture their skin tone and complexion.)
Background elements vary from fuzzy to clear, but close-ups are razor sharp, allowing us to see the glistening sweat, hair follicles, and skin blemishes on the characters' faces. And while there's not a lot of intense color on display, the hues remain true and natural-looking throughout. No banding, mosquito noise, or other imperfections distract us from the action, and no digital doctoring seems to have been applied. Though this is far from the finest catalogue transfer I've seen, 'In the Heat of the Night' looks better than it ever has on home video, and that should please both fans and newbies alike.
'In the Heat of the Night' took home the Academy Award for Best Sound, and this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track honors that distinction with a clear, clean presentation that's free of any hiss, pops, and crackles. Surround activity is understandably slim and limited mostly to Quincy Jones' powerful and, at times, dissonant score. The jazzy music possesses excellent fidelity and tonal depth, and easily fills the room. (The title song, performed with plenty of soul by Ray Charles, sounds particularly full and robust.) Stereo separation across the front channels somewhat widens the soundscape, with directional bleeds adding a realistic touch to several sequences.
Accents, such as footsteps in the brush and car wheels crunching on loose gravel, are crisp and distinct, and ambient nuances like crickets achieve a fine degree of presence. Dialogue, thanks to Poitier's excellent diction, is always clear and easy to comprehend, despite some challenging accents, and the mix as a whole flaunts a tight, well-integrated feel that keeps us focused on the on-screen action. For a film from the mid-1960s, the audio is nicely balanced and just active enough to prick up our ears from time to time.
All the extras from the previous DVD edition have been ported over to this release. It's not a bad selection of supplements, especially for an almost 50-year-old film.
'In the Heat of the Night' might not hold up as well as fellow Best Picture nominees 'The Graduate' and 'Bonnie and Clyde,' but this Oscar-winning murder mystery remains a searing indictment of racial prejudice and discrimination. Letting the theme's inherent power speak for itself (preachy speeches are kept to a minimum), director Norman Jewison crafts an intriguing tale that focuses on the fireworks between stars Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, and the two actors don't disappoint. Fox's Blu-ray presentation features solid video and audio transfers, and all the supplements that appeared on the previous DVD. Though changing times and social advancements have dulled some of the movie's sting, 'In the Heat of the Night' tells it like it was in the Deep South in the 1960s and stands as a potent reminder of where we were and how far we've progressed. Recommended.