In the Heat of the Night (1967): The Hands of Virgil Tibbs
Everything was going so well in Sparta, Mississippi. A new factory had been built. Business was booming, and new jobs were being created. The factory’s owner got murdered, but the police had the whole situation under control. The fact that the town was called Sparta in the first place told you everything you needed to know about the police themselves: they dispatched justice quickly, asked questions later, showed no mercy, paid no attention to the advice of outsiders.
All of that changed one hot summer night, when a stranger entered town and meddled in their affairs. He began touching everything. Their evidence. Their witnesses. Their suspects. And the police were appalled—because his hands were of a different color than theirs.
That’s one way of interpreting Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), one of those great American classics which nobody ever forgets. Winner of the 1967 Academy Award for Best Picture, it is sometimes dismissed as a film that won the Oscar out of sheer political correctness, but far too many moviegoers in recent years have overlooked the significant accomplishments of the movie Jewison actually made. The first two times I saw In the Heat of the Night, I admired it as an entertaining but seemingly conventional murder story. A third viewing enlightened me to what the film actually is: an aesthetic portrait of a black cop’s gradual deconstruction of a white justice system. When Jewison told Senator Robert Kennedy about the project at a New Year’s Eve party in Sun Valley, Idaho, the former U.S. Attorney General was astonished. “It’s very important, Norman, that you make this movie,” Kennedy advised him. “The time is right for a movie like this. Timing is everything—in politics, in art, and in life itself.”
In the Heat of the Night works so well, I think, because Jewison is one of those special directors with a talent for determining the creative differences in a narrative. The film’s mostly-white cast (Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, Scott Wilson, Anthony James) is broken by the commanding entrance of Sidney Poitier, who steps off a train in the film’s opening scene and leaves behind a shadow so dark it obscures a puppy trailing curiously outside the train station’s screen door. One of the pleasures of In the Heat of the Night is in watching as Poitier’s presence slowly begins to throw off the film’s white supporting characters, one-by-one. Jewison’s camera is primarily in love with Poitier’s black hands, which serve multiple purposes in the film—whether they’re inspecting a white corpse, consoling the white hands of a witness, examining the white hands of a suspect or returning the blows of a man’s white hand with a counterblow to that man’s white face.
If this sounds like a far-fetched interpretation, consider one of the first scenes in the film. The police have found the dead body of Colbert, the factory owner from Chicago whose murder will probably cause an upset in the town’s economy (“He came all this way to build a factory, make something out of this town, before they got him,” mutters an undertaker). The undertakers are alarmed, then, when Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) suddenly walks in to inspect the body for himself, and Jewison’s camera closes in on Poitier’s hands as they slowly move up and down the dead white flesh, in Tibbs’ attempt to determine Colbert’s time of death. From this point onwards, Jewison signifies the crucial direction in which the film is headed: that the delivery of justice for a white man’s death now rests in a black man’s hands.
Virgil Tibbs is a police officer from Philadelphia. He has come to Sparta to visit his mother, and is not a happy camper when the Sparta police pounce on him just hours after Colbert’s murder; with his black skin, well-dressed appearance and wallet chock-full of money, he sticks out like a sore thumb in town, and that’s all it takes for the Sparta police to arrest him as a suspect. The first time Tibbs meets Gillespie (Rod Steiger), Sparta’s burly old police chief, Gillespie is first amused, then annoyed, then embarrassed, then outraged by Tibbs’ presence. Amused that a well-dressed black man appears to have murdered Colbert. Annoyed that Tibbs professes ignorance when Gillespie excitedly asks him, "What'd ya hit him with?" Embarrassed when Tibbs reveals he’s a cop from Philly. Outraged when Tibbs proudly declares that he makes “a hundred and sixty-two dollars and thirty-nine cents per week.” It is only after Tibbs makes a phone call to his supervisor in Philly that Gillespie considers, hey: why not let Tibbs stay in town and help them solve the case?
Here, then, is the movie’s second running theme: the fluctuations in mood and decision-making of the Gillespie character, who doesn’t want a black man helping him track down Colbert’s killer but doesn’t really have much of a choice. Whenever Gillespie enlists the help of Tibbs, he makes progress; when he doesn’t, he makes none. It is Gillespie who allows Tibbs to inspect Colbert’s corpse, and it is Gillespie who allows Tibbs to question Endicott (Larry Gates), who would rather see blacks working as fieldhands out on his plantation than listen to one interrogate him in his own greenhouse. But Gillespie also wants to hurry up and be done with the case, and, thus, acts irrationally whenever Tibbs is quick to invalidate his evidence. When Tibbs, for example, proves that Harvey (Scott Wilson) is innocent, Gillespie throws Tibbs in jail; and when Tibbs proves that Officer Sam (Warren Oates) is innocent, Gillespie angrily orders Tibbs to take the next train back to Philly. In a town where the air conditioner never works and everybody drinks Coca-Cola to stay cool, Gillespie has no patience for Tibbs and his process of logic and reason.
The town itself (actually, Sparta, Illinois) serves as an exhilarating backdrop for the Tibbs/Gillespie conflict at the center of story, and Jewison and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, take advantage of the crisp Southern setting. In the daytime, their camera zooms in on convicts running across high suspension bridges while Hal Ashby’s editing allows them to transition to POV shots of dogs charging through the grass down below. At night, they use optical close-ups of the taillights of Officer Sam’s police car to signal the danger that lies ahead. Aided by a jazzy Quincy Jones score, which boasts a now-famous title song by Ray Charles, their technical contributions help to enhance the conflict between Tibbs and Gillespie, which seems to grow worse and worse with each passing day.
They don’t like each other, clearly. Jewison boldly suggests that they both harbor prejudices. Gillespie may not be a full-fledged racist—he’s on good terms with a black mechanic (Khalil Bezaleel) who resides on the outskirts of town—but he nevertheless takes offense at the prospect of Tibbs, this “nigger boy from Philadelphia,” telling him how to do his job. Tibbs, during his phone call to his supervisor, insists, “No sir, I’m not prejudiced,” but later salivates over the prospect of showing every white man in Sparta just how stupid they are (“You wanna know something, Virgil?” hints Gillespie, “I don’t think you can let an opportunity like that pass by!”). Both men are egged on by their superiors—Tibbs by his supervisor, Gillespie by Sparta’s mayor (William Schallert). But the supervisor in Philly probably just wants Tibbs to play the role of the good Negro archetype, and the mayor of Sparta later wonders why Gillespie doesn’t shoot Tibbs in “self-defense” after Tibbs starts getting on the townspeople’s bad side.
Not a single major player in the movie is without prejudice, either, as demonstrated in the movie’s best-remembered scene, in which Tibbs and Gillespie come to question Endicott, the bigoted plantation owner. Endicott thinks it will be easy to handle Tibbs; he lives by a code in which black people, like orchids, “need care, and feeding, and cultivating—and that takes time.” Tibbs remains cool, continues with his line of questioning, and that’s when Endicott snaps. You cannot call yourself a knowledgeable moviegoer and not be familiar with that famous moment when Endicott walks up to Tibbs and slaps him across the face—and Tibbs smacks him right back.
If you have to, look at this scene twice. Notice the differing ways in which characters in the background react to the two consecutive slaps. Gillespie shows minimal alarm at Endicott’s slap, and even greater alarm at Tibbs’ slap; never before has he ever seen a black man strike a white man. Endicott’s colored butler Henry (Jester Hairston), meanwhile, can be seen in the background reacting with utter horror at Endicott’s slap; he’s obviously seen that kind of bigoted mistreatment on the plantation before. We don’t get to see Henry’s immediate reaction to Tibbs’ counterblow, but once Tibbs and Gillespie are out of the greenhouse, here’s what we do see: Henry shaking his head, disapprovingly, at the pathetic Endicott, who is left sobbing over his orchids.
This scene alone is enough to earn the movie its place in the history of American cinema. If Endicott has charged that it “takes time” for blacks to be cared for, fed and cultivated, then Virgil Tibbs’ slap—a slap heard all around the world in 1967—effectively fast-forwarded through that “time”. We saw a black kid beat Steve McQueen at penny-pitching in Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and now here was Jewison allowing a black man to strike a white man across the face. It was as if Jewison had ripped ten, twenty or maybe a hundred pages out of American cinema’s future, thus eliminating the convention of the loyal, obedient black character that would have plagued movies for the next decade. No: not this time. You couldn’t have later moments in cinema like Mookie’s destruction of the pizza parlor, in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), if Poitier’s assault on the plantation owner had not helped paved the way for it.
Certainly the rest of the movie holds up well. Poitier and Steiger are flanked by an impressive supporting cast, with each character afflicted in one way or the next by Virgil Tibbs’ interference in their private affairs. Observe Lee Grant as Colbert’s wife, nearly panicking over her husband’s death before Tibbs clasps her hand in his, in a quiet maneuver to ease her pain. Or Warren Oates as Sam, embarrassed to admit to Tibbs that he’s a Peeping Tom. Or Scott Wilson as Harvey, loudly distrustful of Tibbs until Tibbs silences him with his index finger, assuring him that he’s on his side. Or Quentin Dean as Delores, the buxom babe who delivers a speech about sex on gravestones in Tibbs’ presence. Or Beah Richards as Mama Caleba, the black abortionist to whom Tibbs warns, “There’s white time in jail and there’s colored time in jail—the worst kind of time you can do is colored time.” Or Anthony James as Ralph, the diner owner who fiddles with a rubber band, hides lemon meringue pies from his customers and dances to imaginary songs like “Fowl Owl on the Prowl” when no one’s around. He’s the bad guy.
And then, of course, there’s Gillespie, played by Steiger in a towering, Academy-Award winning performance. Steiger had worked with great filmmakers before (Fred Zinnemann on Oklahoma!; Elia Kazan on On the Waterfront; Samuel Fuller on Run of the Arrow; Sidney Lumet on The Pawnbroker; David Lean on Doctor Zhivago), but his work with Jewison on In the Heat of the Night would spawn a lasting friendship that led to two more collaborations, on F.I.S.T. (1976) and on The Hurricane (1999). Here, he plays Gillespie as a man with credible authority but a dismal social life, loathed by the townspeople, ostracized by his deputies. It isn’t until 50 minutes into the film when he actually manages to get Tibbs to smile, when he threatens to “horsewhip” Tibbs, and Tibbs responds with a burst of laughter ("My father used to say that to me... even did, once or twice"). Steiger has a great scene in which he invites Poitier over to his house, and the two men have a revealing moment in which Gillespie admits he’s a miserable man, and asks Tibbs if he’s got a girl. “Don’t you just get… a little lonely?” Gillespie asks, only to be insulted by Tibbs’ sincere reply: “No lonelier than you.”
The final scene is the only scene in the movie that doesn’t really work. Tibbs and Gillespie don’t get to have the profound moment of reconciliation they should have had, and all Jewison and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant can muster up is a last-minute handshake between the two men, with Gillespie wishing that Tibbs “take care.” It’s a curiously emotionless moment. Even though the movie has already broken a lot of significant ground up to this point, an emotionally-powerful ending would have been icing on the cake. We get, instead, a thankless, insignificant parting.
Such an ending may have something to do with the movie’s unpopularity amongst moviegoers who don’t think it deserved to win so many Oscars. Looking back, 1967 was, indeed, a strong year for cinema, and many feel—not without good reason—that either Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde or Mike Nichols’ The Graduate should have walked off with the top prize instead. Even something like Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood, which wasn’t even nominated, looks like a better movie today.
So maybe, on an emotional level, In the Heat of the Night lacks the power of those aforementioned films. On an analytical level, however, it can be argued that Jewison’s film holds a candle to them. Watching the movie, we are, essentially, watching a color barrier being smashed to pieces before our very eyes. Whether Poitier is running his hands across a dead white corpse, or the cushions of a car, or the stems of a fern twig which he promptly twirls in front of the camera lens, he’s doing something that would have been unheard of in the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s: he’s permeating an entire town with his touch. For the first time ever in an American movie, a black actor was taking control in a story about the South.
“They call me MISTER Tibbs!” Poitier roars, in that famous shouting match with Steiger. And he means it. Until he came to town, everybody thought they knew how to handle things. But Sparta, Mississippi doesn’t know Virgil Tibbs.