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In the Heat of the Night

As mentioned previously, the 60ís were a dark time for Oscar. One of these days Iíll have to sit down and watch all the crappy musicals that won best picture that decade. This is not that day.

The best picture of 1967 is In the Heat of the Night. On a routine evening patrol, an officer in Sparta, MS discovers the body of a prominent Chicago businessman laying in the street. The town has never dealt with a murder before and they donít quite know what to do. The patrolman is sent to check out the pool hall and train stations, and itís at the latter that he finds Virgil Tibbs, a very well-dressed African American gentleman waiting for a train, which in the warped mind of a pre-civil rights white southern male is suspicious behavior. Tibbs is dragged before the chief who, upon seeing Tibbsí badge, calls Tibbsís chief in Philadelphia who offers up Tibbs, the top homicide detective, to help solve the murder. The two have different ideas about who committed the crime. Chief Gillespie first latches onto the town drunk, then suspects one of his own men. Tibbs suspects a wealthy local landowner, then tries to play Columbo with him. This leads to an incident where the rich white southerner slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him back, while Chief Gillespie sits in stunned silence. The landowner points out that at one time he could have had Tibbs killed, and audiences in 1967 could have smiled that society had come that far. Audiences today can smile at the fact that had the rich, white, southern gentleman done the same thing in 2007, he would be arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Tibbs of course eventually runs afoul of the local chapter of the KKK, and the chief has to chase them off. This gives Tibbs barely enough time to solve the case, and when Tibbs finally boards his train, what had once been an uneasy relationship between the two law enforcement officers turns to one of mutual respect.

This is a remarkable film for many reasons. First of all, as I stated in my review of Casablanca, I was uneasy about the definition of the relationship between Rick and Sam in that I felt they should be equals, while the producers portrayed Sam as mainly an employee. A lot changed in 35 years. Officer Tibbs and Chief Gillespie are clearly equals, and they themselves come to realize it.

Secondly, behind the racial overtones it was an excellent crime drama. It shows off all of the aspects of modern crime drama. We are teased several times with clues that would lead us off into different directions. The examination of the body and the victim's car even foreshadows "CSI."

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are excellent, Steiger deservedly winning best actor, by beating out the packed field of Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, and Spencer Tracy (Hoffman in his first leading role, Tracy in his last). Lee Grant also does a lot with a small role as the victim's widow.

Another interesting tidbit is the mayorís insistence that the chief solve the crime, even if it means letting Tibbs handle the investigation. The victim was intent on building a factory in Sparta and the mayor does not want to loose out on the jobs, as the victim's widow threatens. The mayor is willing to ignore his own racism when it fits his agenda. This oddly enough mirrors an actual event that was instrumental in killing off Jim Crow once and for all. After Texas Westernís NCAA title game win over lily-white Kentucky and integrated Southern Calís football destruction of lily-white Alabama, southern boosters became willing to put racism aside so that their favorite team could win. Segregation meant little if it came with a 1-9 record.

Other nominees included Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner, which also stared Poitier and also focused on the theme of race, The Graduate, Doctor Dolittle, and Bonnie and Clyde. Doctor Dolittle, a goofy comedy, sticks out like a sore thumb in that group, and Cool Hand Luke is conspicuous in its absence. Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner is also a wonderful film, but it only breaks ground in terms of the interracial relationship. The Graduate is the one that truly competes with In the Heat of the Night. The bizarre love triangle, the hazy, almost drugged out montage of sex and swimming, and of course William Daniels, the voice of KITT from Knight Rider himself as Benís father. In the Heat of the Night is a great movie, but I still feel partial to the Graduate.


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