Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates
Not Rated (contains Brief Violence)
Typically, when the plot of the movie fails, it takes the movie down with it. After all, that's why we go to see movies, right? Occasionally though, you come across movies like "In the Heat of the Night," where everything else is strong enough to compensate for the plot, which is trite and not particularly interesting.
The film takes place in the small Mississippi town of Sparta, where civil rights are practiced in name only (if that). Officer Sam Wood (Oates) is on patrol when he comes across a dead body lying in the middle of the road. His chief, a tough old salt named Gillespie (Steiger), tells him to head to the depot to prevent the killer from getting away. There, he finds a well-dressed black man patiently waiting for the train. His name is Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), and after roughing him up to put him through the paces, Wood makes the arrest. It is only when he gets back to the station that Gillespie learns that Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia visiting his mother. Tibbs' superior wants him to stay in town and solve the case, a fact that irritates both Tibbs and Gillespie. But they have no choice when the murder victim's wife (Lee Grant) says that if Tibbs leaves, she takes her husband's planned factory and leaves. Now these two men will have to work together to catch the killer.
It's a movie formula as old as time itself. But with strong acting and character development, it rises above the clichés.
The film is all about Poitier and Steiger. Other characters drift in and out of the screen, but the focus is squarely on them. Both give excellent performances (to be quite frank, they save the script). Tibbs doesn't want the case and doesn't need to put up with the racism of those around him. But tracking down the clues energizes him, and the though of fighting back against the injustices he faces gives him motivation. Gillespie is his total opposite. Whereas Tibbs is careful and methodical, Gillespie is impulsive and stubborn. To him, the first answer is the right one, and he won't budge from it easily.
One thing that is worth noting is how Norman Jewison handles racism. He doesn't step on eggshells but he doesn't shove it in your face. It's very matter-of-fact, and that realism gives the film its punch. There aren't any caricatures here. Gillespie's change of opinion regarding Tibbs is also well played. Gillespie isn't very bright, and he knows this. Although it aggravates him, Tibbs' intelligence impresses him enough to earn his respect. The chemistry between these two characters was strong enough to form a TV show starring Carroll O'Connor and Howard E. Rollins, Jr., running for 7 seasons.
It's a shame, really, about the story. It's got all the materials for a great movie except the main ingredient.