Close to 50 years after In the Heat of the Night‘s original release, the Academy Award winning Best Picture from 1967 still has the power to incite anger and compassion, even if some of the characters come off as more cartoonish when seen with decades of perspective. This is because the performances of the late Rod Steiger (who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance) and the incomparable Sidney Poitier still ring true. These two towering men deliver gripping performances that can only be described as classic.
When a white businessman, Colbert, is murdered in a small Mississippi town, the local sheriff, Chief Gillespie, commands his deputies to round up any strangers or suspicious looking characters. This being the 60s, one such stranger happens to be black man waiting for the train, which therefore, in the deputy’s mind, makes him suspicious. The stranger’s name is Virgil, but back home in Philadelphia, they call him Mr. Tibbs. That’s because Virgil is the top homicide detective in Phillie.
As soon as Virgil is cleared of suspicion, he’s instructed by his commanding officer back home to stay and help the locals solve their murder. Virgil wants nothing to do with them, but Gillespie is desperate. Colbert was going to build a factory in the town, saving the town from its financial hard times. The dead man’s widow threatens to leave town and take the factory with her unless Gillespie and his deputies use Virgil to help solve the murder.
The plot plays out much more organically than I’ve just described it. Director Norman Jewison, one of the great directors of the late 20th Century, moves the story along at a steady, even pace, pulling you along and revealing clues at just the right moment to keep you involved in the mystery. However, the mystery isn’t the draw of In the Heat of the Night; the draw is the sparring between Gillespie and Virgil and the way these men realize that they’re more alike than they’d like to believe,
Both men carry a deep sense of pride and anger. Gillespie is a power powder keg of rage, a man feeling pressure to solve this crime or lose his job. Virgil manages to suppress his own rage, aware that saying the wrong thing could cost him. Gillespie and Virgil have unspoken respect for each other. Watching Steiger and Poitier go toe to toe with each other is as exciting as any of the story driven action. It’s impossible to imagine thus film with either actor
Although the last scene between Gillespie and Virgil feels a bit contrived – both men expressing gratitude with broad, “I’m gonna miss you buddy, you changed my life “smiles – the rest of In the Heat of the Night still feels rings true. As MGM begins to celebrate their 90th Anniversary, this classic’s Blu-ray release is a pretty good way to kick of the celebration.
The bonus features are all from previous DVD releases of the film. However, they provide historical context to the importance of the film and the lasting legacy of Poitier.