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IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
40th Anniversary Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant
Director:  Norman Jewison
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  January 15, 2008

"They call me MR. TIBBS!!"

Film ***1/2

In the Heat of The Night is a superb crime drama with a social conscience, courtesy of a director known for his works of that nature, Norman Jewison.  It is as engrossing as any mystery thriller should be, but actually strives for and achieves a little bit more than that by keeping the mystery secondary to the characters.

When a prominent local businessman is found murdered in the tiny southern town of Sparta, Mississippi, Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) gets picked up at the train station as a potential suspect, having essentially three strikes against him:  he’s black, he’s a stranger, and he’s carrying a good amount of cash.  Nobody bothers to question him until he’s brought before the police chief, Gillespie (Steiger), where it is embarrassingly learned that Tibbs is a Philadelphia homicide cop.

After a phone call to his boss, and for reasons never made entirely clear, Tibbs ends up working on the very murder he was accused of, alongside the very men who accused him!  It’s clear from the get go that these good old southern boys haven’t had much experience in homicide cases, and Tibbs brings a scientific and logical expertise that both baffles and intimidates the white officers.

But suddenly working with the police doesn’t make him any more acceptable.  Gillespie is obviously more used to a swifter brand of ‘justice’.  When a fleeing suspect is brought in carrying the dead man’s wallet, the chief assumes open and shut case.  Tibbs, however, is used to looking more closely.  “He’s left handed, isn’t he?” he asks of the man in custody.  Yes, he is, the officers acknowledge, so what does that make him?  “Innocent,” is Tibbs’ reply.

The fact that Tibbs ends up in an ironic race reversal, protecting a white southern man from the kind of open-and-shut case imprisonment that his fellow black men were so often subjected to is just one of the juicy points of the story.  Another occurs when Tibbs unpleasantly finds himself in the position of having to tell the widow (Grant) of her husband’s death—something that clearly should have been Gillespie’s job.  At first, she instinctively rejects his offer of a shoulder to cry on, but her grief slowly builds until she’s taken his hand in sorrow.  Soon, right about the time Gillespie is about ready to send Tibbs on his way back north, she delivers a surprising ultimatum:  Tibbs must stay on the case, or she will move her late husband’s factory (one of the town’s sole lifelines) elsewhere.  Like it or not, Gillespie and Tibbs will have to work together to solve the murder.

The unraveling of the mystery is balanced by more scenes of what Tibbs has to endure in that backwoods little southern town…from being denied service at a diner, to a gang of pipe and chain wielding rednecks obviously looking for a little lynching party.  To his credit, Tibbs maintains a professional demeanor and goes about his job, though the burning in his eyes often reveal the anger welling inside him.  In Philadelphia, he’s the number one homicide man on the force.  In Sparta, he’s just another black man.

I appreciate the little touches that pepper Tibbs’ relationship with Gillespie:  small things like when the chief refuses an offer of a cold drink on both of their behalves, and Tibbs pipes up and accepts.  Such touches show Gillespie trying (and failing) to get an upper hand on Tibbs, who is clearly the superior detective.  What blossoms between them over the course of the film is fascinating:  though obviously a bigoted man, the chief is also a man of the law, and his gaining respect for Tibbs’ abilities slowly becomes stronger than his prejudices.

But the mystery moves forward, with some surprising twists and turns that will keep viewers riveted.  Jewison and his crew have given the picture a dark look, where dim lights and shadows create strange images.  The rhythm of the film is very distinct and well paced:  there is hardly a moment when the atmosphere doesn’t seem electrified by impending danger.

The cast is terrific, spearheaded by two dynamic lead performances by Poitier, who brings a quiet, edgy dignity to his role as Tibbs, and Steiger, who plunges fearlessly into an unlikable character and manages to bring out a sense of real humanity behind his flaws.

An Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1967, In the Heat of the Night is a film that hasn’t lost any of its edge or relevance more than 40 years later…it’s easy to see why two sequels and a television series would come out of it. 

Video ***

This is a mostly good, if imperfect anamorphic transfer from MGM.  Considering the age of the picture, it’s held up quite well:  only a few of the darkest scenes fail to hide some tell tale signs of wear.  Images are generally very clear and sharp, even in the many nighttime sequences, and colors appear natural, if just a tad muted from time to time.  Some of Jewison’s lighting choices caused deliberate distortions; but this has nothing to do with the transfer, which was largely free from grain and devoid of compression evidence.

Audio *1/2

This new 5.1 mix is a fair listen, but shows its age a bit with occasional but non-distracting background hiss (mostly during quieter scenes).  The dynamic range is fairly good for mono, and the music by Quincy Jones and the title song performed by Ray Charles sound quite good, and dialogue clarity is always fine.

Features **1/2

The highlight of the disc is an audio commentary by Jewison, DP Haskell Wexler, and stars Steiger and Grant.  Though recorded separately, they are edited together flawlessly, for a particularly good listen.  Jewison is informative and humorous, and you can almost see the twinkle in his eye as he tells his tales.  Apart from that, there is also three featurettes: "Turning Up the Heat: Movie Making in the Turbulent 60s", "Quincy Jones: In the Heat of the Music" and "The Slap Heard Around the World".  There is also a trailer and some TV spots.

Summary:

In the Heat of the Night is a rare film that manages to balance a crime story and social commentary without one being sacrificed to the other.  The performances sizzle, the look is distinct, the music is memorable…the film just flat out delivers a knockout punch and makes for a great evening’s entertainment.

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