Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Quentin Dean

Directed by: Norman Jewison

Produced by: Walter Mirisch

Written by: Stirling Silliphant

In The Heat Of The Night is one of my personal favorite movies. It's a well acted, and extremely claustrophobic drama. The opening alone sets you up for a film that promises to be something special. No music is employed to add any of that typically stylish tone usually found in Hollywood, and this particular film is all the better for it. The lack of music in this section means that you can hear every background sound in the town. Every footstep, every car, everything is heard. This makes everything tenser because you find yourself fully absorbed in the film, and the silence manages to work like the calm before the inevitable storm. This silence is held up right until the moment where the Sherif goes on a chase after the films first real suspect, and when the music kicks in here it really pokes you with the realization, that rather than the solving the problem, this occurrence is going to be the start of the problems facing the characters. Of course all of this is pretty much the surface details found in a film that goes well beyond the confines of it's own concept.

The basic plot line is deceptively simple. There's this police officer doing his rounds on a rainy night. He, as usual, happens to be going past the window of a young girl who's parading around her house in the nude. After stopping there for a while he continues on, until at the end of the alley he notices someone lying in the middle of the road. Getting out of his car he discovers that this person is in fact a rich businessman who had come into town to arrange some building work. He was possibly the most important man in the town, but unfortunately, he's dead when the officer finds him. He calls this in, and the sherif comes out to the scene with a photographer to get pictures. Without any clue's, no witnesses and no motive the sherif is stumped. The town has had very little experience in this department, and so he does the only thing he can think of, he sends the officer out to look for suspicious characters. Their problems are over then, when going past the train station, he finds a black man from out of town. Case solved, no need for further investigation. However when the sherif questions this man, it turns out that he himself is a police officer. Not just any police officer, but a crack homicide cop who is none to happy when his chief asks him to stick around and help the local police with the investigation. His concerns are justified however as racism blocks him at every stage of his investigation. The local police try to ignore his findings, the residents are trying to get him out of town and some of them even want to kill him.

However what could have been just another murder mystery, set to the backdrop of a racist town, is lifted up by it's superior writing. It's been made instead, into a fascinating character study of the 2 main characters. The Sherif, who could have easily been used as a villain to block the hero's progress at every turn, is used in a surprising way. He's developed as a character who is racist through circumstances, rather than mere choice and so when thrown into a situation where he has to work with a black man as an equal, while initially frustrated, slowly begins to develop a respect for this man. This change is so subtle that even the Sheriff doesn't notice it happening until a character points it out to him, and is quite confused by it all so that when he's asked what he'll do he replies that, he just doesn't know. The Hero, Detective Virgil Tibbs is another character who could have been written simpler. He could have just been a character who wants to catch the killer, but is instead written as a flawed character with a superiority complex. For all the times he mentions that the locals don't really care about the truth, he proves himself to be every bit as prejudice against them as they are against him. He's not really bothered about catching the killer, so much as he wants to arrest himself one of the bigger rednecks.

Of course everyone knows that if a film is made as a character study then it can only work if the actors chosen succeed to get into those characters. That's where In The Heat Of The Night works best. The 2 actors chosen for the roles, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, manage to become their character, and even though they are big names you still find yourself easily forgetting that they are actors. In the role of Detective Tibbs Poitier manages to become to the embodiment of pent up rage. Usually without saying anything, he manages to get the facial expression for a furious character right, without going over the top. Right off from the moment he is arrested, he is able to convince us that this character could explode at any minute. The character only has a few moments where his anger really bursts out, including that classic line "They call me Mr Tibbs!" Yet even then he hasn't released anything beyond his surface frustrations, and so it's something most actors would find difficult, yet Poitier does it extremely well. He even manages to soften up just slightly enough as the character begins to accept the town.

It is possibly Steiger though who has the most difficult task. As the Sherif, he had to play a character with just as many frustration as Tibbs, but his character went through a lot more changes. He had to play the frustration, and while the character changed he was required to play both frustration and respect for the character of Tibbs. Then when he realizes he is starting to respect Tibbs, he has to add confusion into the mix as well. Steiger manages to convey all of the necessary emotions and does them perfectly. He get's to verbalize his frustrations, and act on them more, so he has it easier in that regard. However he needs to show the respect through his facial expressions, which I would imagine is infinitely harder than rage. It does show through though, as you eventually become convinced of this respect even though his actions speak a completely different story. Then, at the point where a character asks him what he's going to do about Tibbs, and he replies "Well sir, I just don't know." it's his facial expressions that get across his confusion, much better than the line does. Steiger well deserved the award he picked up for the role, because it truly is an amazing performance in a classic film.