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Film Friday: «In the Heat of the Night» (1967)

This week on «Film Friday» I am celebrating Sidney Poitier's 90th birthday by telling you a little bit about one of his most well-known and acclaimed films. This was also the Best Picture winner at the 40th Academy Awards on April 10, 1968.

Directed by Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night (1967) begins when a prominent white businessman, Philip Colbert (Jack Tetter), is found dead in an alley in Sparta, Mississippi. Hunting for suspects, the police pick up Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a well-dressed Negro, and bring him to headquarters for questioning. But, to the consternation of police chief Bill Gillespie (Roy Steiger), Tibbs turns out to be a top homicide detective from Philadelphia who has been in town visiting his mother. Ordered by his superior in Philadelphia to assist with the case, Tibbs conducts the postmortem examination and thus displays his superior knowledge of criminology. Though enraged, Gillespie reluctantly acquiesces in Tibbs's findings.
Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night.

As the investigation gets underway, Gillespie accuses young Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson) of the murder when he catches him with the dead man's wallet, but Tibbs quickly proves that Oberst stole the wallet after he found the body. Tibbs, for his part, is so determined to establish the guilt of Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), an influential but insolent and bigoted conservative who opposed Colbert's progressive plans for a modern factory, that he too makes a false accusation. Gradually, as Tibbs and Gillespie combine their efforts, a grudging tolerance develops between them.
After Gillespie wrongly charges his own deputy, Sam Wood (Warren Oates), with the murder, the local tease, Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean), is dragged into the police station by her brother, who claims that she is pregnant by Wood. Upon learning about an abortionist called Mama Caleba (Beah Richards), Tibbs visits the woman and pressures her to reveal she is about to perform an abortion on Delores. In the meantime, Delores arrives accompanied by the actual father of her child, diner counterman Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James). Tibbs confronts him, and Henshaw confesses that he unintentionally killed Colbert while robbing him to obtain the money for Delores' abortion. With the case closed, Gillespie drives Tibbs to the railway depot and the two shake hands in acknowledgment of the mutual respect that has grown between them. 
VIRGIL TIBBS (Sidney Poitier): They call me Mister Tibbs!

In 1933, while working part-time as a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, John Ball had the idea for a novel that would bring together a racist white police chief and a proud black detective to solve a murder case. However, he did not get the story written until 1960 and it took another five years for Harper & Row to publish it as In the the Heat of the Night.
In terms of race relations, 1965 was an «incendiary» year in American history. From the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, to the assassination of human rights activist Malcolm X, to the Watts riots by African-American against the police force in Los Angeles, the civil rights movement was at its high. In the atmosphere that engendered these events and more, the story of a white cop and a black cop teamed to solve a crime in a Southern town could not have been more volatile. Indeed, In the Heat of the Night was highly controversial upon release, but it was also highly successful. It won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and the character of Virgil Tibbs continued to appear in a series of books and short stories written by Ball.
Book covers for In The Heat of the Night: first edition hardcover by Harper & Row (1965); mass marker paperback by Bantam (1967); Carroll & Graf Publishers (1992); 50th anniversary paperback by Penguin Classics (2015).

The controversy generated around In the Heat of the Night caught the attention of independent producer Walter Mirisch, who purchased the right to Ball's novel in 1966. He immediately envisioned it as a vehicle for Sidney Poitier, who had recently won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963) the first black man to achieve such an accolade. However, Ball had trouble convincing his usual studio, United Artists, to distribute the film for fear it would be banned in Southern states. He finally convinced the studio to finance the project, promising to keep the budget down so that it would turn a profit even if it never played in the South.

Mirisch's first choice to write the film adaptation of the In the Heat of the Night was Robert Alan Aurthur, whose screenplay for Edge of the City (1957), based on his own teleplay «A Man Is Ten Feet Tall» for The Philco Television Playhouse, had received great acclaim. (Poitier had actually starred in both productions.) However, Aurthur's initial attempts at a script did not meet Mirisch's approval and he was eventually let go from the project.

Timothy Scott, Scott Wilson, Rod Steiger, Sidney Poitier and Lee Grant.

Poitier's agent, Martin Baum, then suggested Stirling Silliphant, a prolific television writer often hailed as the next Paddy Chayefsky. Silliphant's television commitments were so great that he had only had time to write two films, Village of the Damned (1960) and The Slender Thread (1965). The latter had starred Poitier, and though it had failed at the box office, the star was sufficiently impressed with Silliphant's work to want him for this new film.

In translating the novel to the screen, Silliphant transformed Tibbs from the polite, friendly Californian originally created by Ball into a hard-nosed, proud Northern black from Philadelphia. Part of that characterization was based on Poitier's screen image and his ability to portray characters smoldering under the weight of racism. Gillespie, a minor character in the novel and originally an open-minded newcomer to his job, was transformed into a major character, a veteran officer struggling to reconcile his own racism with the need to work with the black detective. Silliphant also transformed the novel's murder victim from a concert promoter to an industrialist trying to bring a factory to the small town, which would rejuvenate it economically.
Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger as Tibbs and Gillespie in In The Heat of the Night.
To helm In the Heat of the Night, Mirisch hired Norman Jewison, who had started his career directing variety shows for television, most notably The Judy Garland Show. He made the transition to film with comedies like 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962) and The Thrill of It All (1963), landing a two-picture deal with Mirisch after replacing Sam Peckinpah as the director of The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Jewison and Mirisch's first project was the Cold War satire The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), which became a great hit.

With the success of their previous collaboration, Jewison convinced Mirisch to let him film In the Heat of the Night on location. Originally, he wanted to shoot it in Sparta, Mississippi, where the story takes place. However, Poitier had almost been killed by the Ku Klux Klan while visiting the state with Harry Belafonte, so he insisted they shoot in the North. Location scouts found the town of Sparta, Illinois, so it was not necessary to change local signs. Despite Jewison's problems with Southern authorities and Poitier's reservations about travelling south of the Mason-Dixon line, part of film was shot in Dyersburg and Union City, Tennessee.

LEFT: Norman Jewison and Sidney Poitier on the set. RIGHT: Sidney Poitier during filming.

Filmed in late 1966, In the Heat of the Night premiered on August 2, 1967 to overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it «a film that has the look and sound of actuality and the pounding pulse of truth», praising Poitier and Steiger's performances. John Mahoney of The Hollywood Reporter considered it «a gripping and suspenseful murder mystery that effects a feeling of greater importance by its veneer of social significance and the illusion of depth in its use of racial colour.» The film was also hugely successful at the box-office, establishing several New York City house records in August and becoming America's most popular movie by the end of that month.
At the 40th Academy Awards held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in California on April 10, 1968, In the Heat of the Night won the coveted statuette for Best Picture, in addition to Best Supporting Actor for Steiger, Best Adapted Screenplay for Silliphant, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. It also received nominations for Best Director and Best Sound Editing.


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