Thursday, November 4, 2010

1967: In the Heat of the Night

When Officer Sam Wood finds a wealthy white businessman's murdered body in the middle of the street in Sparta, Mississippi, the strange black man in the train depot is immediately arrested.  Wood takes the prisoner to Chief Gillespie, who eventually discovers that this particular black man is actually a homicide expert from Philadelphia named Virgil Tibbs.  Tibbs's chief asks him to help Gillespie solve the case he was initially arrested for.  After a lot of hesitation on both men's part, and several false arrests, they ultimately learn to work together to solve the crime - or, to be more accurate, Tibbs works on solving the crime while Gillespie works to keep Tibbs from being lynched.

This is one of the best films about racism I've ever seen.  Every character in the film makes assumptions about other characters based on race.  Wood and Gillespie assume that Tibbs is a murderer because he is a strange black man.  Tibbs assumes that Gillespie won't accept his help because Gillespie is a white, Southern man.  But the film is hopeful about racial reconciliation.  The initial disdain Gillespie feels toward Tibbs gradually turns to respect as he discovers Tibbs's talent.  The two men develop a relationship that might even be called friendship.  The way this unfolds is far more interesting to the viewer than who killed the businessman, though the murder investigation is always on the characters' minds.

I think Sidney Poitier is a brilliant actor, and this is perhaps his finest role.  And the way he says, "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" ensures that that line remains on lists of greatest movie quotes.  Rod Steiger is perfect as Gillespie, and very deservedly won Best Actor.  The two of them work together incredibly well, and that's why I love this movie.  If you just look at the murder mystery part, this is a pretty good film.  But add racial issues in the 1960s South, Sidney Poitier, and Rod Steiger to the murder mystery, and it becomes a great film.

Coming up next: Oliver! (and, yes, the exclamation point is part of the title)

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