Synopsis: An African American detective is asked to investigate a murder in a racist southern town.
Stars: Rod Steiger, Sidney Poitier, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Beah Richards
Director: Norman Jewison
Rated: Approved (back in the days before the rating system)
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: The first movie I’m reviewing as part of my “What Movie Should Joe See?” poll where I put it to you, my readers, to tell me which movie I should be seeing. I’m finding these movies from my list of films I’ve never seen or don’t remember seeing. A multiple Oscar winner (Best Picture, Actor, Director to name a few), In the Heat of the Night was one of the movies I’d never gotten around to seeing, much to my chagrin. To my great pleasure, I was totally knocked out by this picture which was very much ahead of its time. It’s the kind of movie you don’t want to start late at night because you’ll be up past your bedtime, fully involved with the characters and invested in the story.
Poitier and Steiger are perfectly cast and deliver well rounded performances in this murder mystery crime drama that pushes boundaries on the topic of race relations. Steiger deservedly took home the Oscar for his role as a relatively new to town Sheriff that is still finding his way around the politics of town. When a prominent local businessman is murdered, Poitier is the main suspect and jailed simply because of the color of his skin and being in the right place at the wrong time. When its revealed that he’s a West Coast detective passing through town, Steiger is forced to confront his own prejudicial first judgments and Poitier must put aside his own personal beliefs to see eye to eye with Steiger.
When they are forced to work together by a plot device that actually works and feels honest, the two make for an unlikely pair of sleuths. Poitier brings his detective eye to the investigation while Steiger brings his cool reserve and slowly begins to trust the man he originally threw behind bars. This isn’t a film where everyone has a change of heart and sees the error in their ways and that’s why it holds up so well these many years later. A bonus: the mystery to solve isn’t just a plot device used to shake a disapproving finger at racism – it’s actually a well constructed crime that I was genuinely interested in seeing a resolution to.
Along the road to discovering “who done it” the director Jewison gives us some classic moments that I rewound several times to watch over. This is the film where Poitier delivers the classic line, “They call me MISTER Tibbs!” and where he also delivers a well deserved slap to an unsuspecting character that I’m sure had audiences both shocked and cheering.
Opening and closing with Ray Charles singing the title song, this was one movie I was so glad I finally discovered. Days later I found myself still remembering moments and characters — wondering what ended up happening to them. As much of a perfect slice of life film this was, Poitier reprised his role in two more features with Detective TIbbs, They Call Me Mister Tibbs and The Organization. I have both of these sequels queued up, though I doubt they could live up to the knockout original. If you were like me and hadn’t seen this, do yourself a favor and get to it!