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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.


In the Heat of the Night

Plot Overview

To Ray Charles crooning the title song “In the Heat of the Night,” we see some fuzzy lights that coalesce into train tracks to a sleepy town with deserted streets.  Welcome to Sparta, Mississippi. A man in a suit descends from the night train, we see but his legs and his darky hand carrying a suit­case as he enters the station, passing a dog. Dogs may roam the plat­form, but in 1967 Miss., Negroes had to wait in the colored lounge, be the night ever so hot.

Deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates) finishes his break at the Compton Cafe and resumes patrol. The plastic Jesus on his dash­board indicates he takes his shepherding duty seriously. The country music emanating from the trans­istor radio dangling from his mirror suggests there is no serious crime in this small town. He slows down at the house of 16-year-old Delores Purdy to view her peep show—it's too hot a night wear clothes or close the blinds—but drives away from trouble.

Suddenly he brakes. There's a body in the road. It's town benefactor Philip Colbert (Jack Teter) from Chicago “come all this way to build us a factory, make some­thing of this town.” He has no enemies in this place that's hurting for employ­ment (except one.) The Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) thinks it “coulda been a hitch­hiker,” so he sends Sam out to check likely locations, who ends up rousting the Negro at the station (“On your feet, boy!”)

The wad of cash he's carrying makes Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) a more suspicious character, but his explanation of time schedules, his detective's badge, and a phone call to his chief in Phila­delphia soon make him one of the angels. He's a Philly homicide detective and Sparta's inexperienced chief is floundering, so Philly's chief offers them his services, but they decline because he's the wrong color. Then they go about making some more false arrests.

When the widow Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant) gets wind of it, she exclaims, “My God! What kind of people are you? What kind of a place is this?” She demands, “I do not want that Negro officer taken off this case, … other­wise I will pack up my husband's engineers … and leave you … to your­selves.” They are stuck with him, but they put a good face on it: “He has no police powers here. He'll have to hand him [the perp] over on a platter. And it he fails …” it won't be our fault.

Sparta's chief accuses Tibbs of relishing his opportunity to “stay here and show us all,” but it's more complicated than that. Philadelphia means city of brotherly love. The Quakers who founded it were America's first abolitionists, non-hypo­critical in living out their beliefs. Tibbs was loved and respected up there. Spartan means able to bear pain and disregard fear. Down here Tibbs has to suck it up when a rich (white) suspect slaps him, and go about his business with vigi­lantes after him.

When Officer Sam Wood and Detective Virgil Tibbs and Chief Bill Gillespie stop fighting each other and team up in the same patrol car, this thing might get solved. When the Compton Cafe counter­man Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James) selects “Foul Owl on the Prowl” on the juke­box, we might end up with “quail on the tail” or a “swallow” in jail. A great horned owl one day rested in the dark alley behind my place causing loud con­ster­nation from a crow that spotted him. When I saw a rendered bird out­side the next day, the reason became clear: that crow recognized a natural predator. Although this owl's habitat was the Rockies, not the Willamette Valley where I live, that didn't stop it from enjoying the prey it was used to when it came through town.


The much remarked upon slap scene is, I believe, best understood when compared with the source text of John Ball's book: (5, 163)

     “Who won the fight tonight?”
     “Ricci,” the counterman answered immediately. “Split decision. But he still gets a shot at the title.”
     Sam … offered an opinion. “Good thing Ricci won. I don't go much for Italians, but at least a white man gets a chance at the title.”
     The counterman nodded in quick approval. “We got six black champs now, all top divisions. I don't see how they can fight that good.” …
     “They don't feel it when they get hit the way you or I would,” Sam explained. “They haven't got the same nervous system. They're like animals; you've got to hit 'em with a poleax to knock 'em down.” …

They discussed baseball and prizefighting. “It's a tough way to earn a living,” Tibbs commented. “I know some fighters and what they have to take is pretty rugged. It isn't all over when the last bell rings. When the cheering stops, if there is any, it's down to the dressing room, where the doctor is waiting. And when he has to sew up the cuts over the eyes or in the mouth, it hurts like hell.”
     “Virgil, I've wondered how come there are so many colored fighters. Are they just better, or is it maybe easier for them?”
     “If it's any easier I don't know how. I talked to a fighter once who had had a bout in Texas. He took an awful whipping although he fought hard; he was over­matched. Any­how, when the doc came around to fix him up, the needle in his bruised flesh hurt so much he let out a yell. Then the doctor told him he'd presumed it didn't hurt him because he was a Negro.”

If you prick us we will bleed. The above conversations are not found in the movie; instead there is an exchange of (equal) slaps by which is under­stood the black man felt it as well as the white. The white man cried. The black man was more stoic. The critics wrote lots of lines.

“An awful whipping,” though, shows up in another conversation when the Chief tells Tibbs he ought to give him a good whipping and Tibbs laughs because that sounded just like his father. Tibbs in the end of Ball's book remarks on being “despised because of my ancestry” (184). Just how far back do those whip­pings go?

John Ball opens with a curious description of the counterman: “his lower lip hung slightly open as though he were … accustomed to thrusting it out at people as a gesture of defiance” (4). He describes Tibbs as, “his face lacked the broad nose and thick, heavy lips that char­acter­ized so many southern laborers” (15). Sidney Poitier played Tibbs with a flared nose and pronounced lips. Especially note­worthy is the lip he gives—in a memor­able scene—when he answers as to what he is called up north.

As long as we're discussing ancestry, in my review of “Noah,” I mention the traditional report that Noah in order to prevent a population explosion on the ark, forbade inter­course. Noah's son Ham disobeyed, and for his punish­ment Noah cursed his features making them Negroid. (I discuss one of them in my review of “Ride Along.”) Because of his insolence, his lip was made puffy.

More often cited is the biblical passage: (Gen. 9:24–27) “And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.” Canaan was Ham's son. The sons of Ham settled in Africa to later become our African-Americans. Noah's son Shem's descendants became European whites, including, say, the Italians mentioned in the book, and the third son Japheth ended up with the same deal as Shem. In the movie “Noah,” Shem's sinful disposition was greed, Japheth's was that of being a people-pleaser, and Ham's was covet­ous­ness. The system we've developed in this world cleansed by the Noachian flood is capitalism that harnesses man's greed, Japheth's descendants sharing equally the same boat with Shem's, so to speak. The Negroes descended from Ham were placed in a position of servitude in this new order, the post-flood world being less robust than the ante­diluvian one, requiring more co-operative enter­prise to make it all work. God in “Noah” trusted Noah's judg­ment in matters of settling this cleansed world, i.e. (Sirach 44:17) “Noah was found perfect and righteous; in the time of wrath he was taken in exchange [for the world;] there­fore was he left as a remnant unto the earth, when the flood came.” (Wisdom 14:6) “For in the old time also, when the proud giants perished, the hope of the world [Noah] governed by thy hand escaped in a weak vessel [ark], and left to all ages a seed of generation.” “In the Heat of the Night” reflects Noah's arrangement, because Mr. Tibbs is cast as a servant to the SPD, a position he is unable to get out of until he fulfills it, and the whole town is clearly capitalistic, i.e. needing jobs, cutting corners on hiring qualified police officers, eating some consumer pie behind the counter, etc., and it's the uppity colored wise­woman who's performing abortions for a fee before they were legalized. This movie strikes me as being more consistent with gradualism than with drastic federal inter­vention.

Production Values

“In the Heat of the Night” (1967) was directed by Norman Jewison. It won an Oscar for best picture despite serious competition. It was made in 1966 two years after the Civil Rights Act was enacted through much contention. Liberals Jewison and his screen­writer Stirling Silliphant, along with DP Haskell Wexler, and editor Hal Hashby made a compelling product for helping the public swallow the Civil Rights Pill. It was based on John Ball's 1965 novel In the Heat of the Night, but the movie's dialogue is sharper than the ever courteous southern speech in the book. It stars Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, and Warren Oates who shined in their roles.

This was cameraman Wexler's first foray into color photography and he did an excellent job, including the trick with the light at the start. The cutting and pacing was right on, as well. Quincy Jones's musical score was perfect. Because of the tension in Mississippi, and in all of the south, the film was shot north of the Mason–Dixon line, with the exception of four days in Tennessee to capture a cotton plantation. Soft lighting was employed to high­light the skin tone of blacks, difficult to shoot. A zoom lens—a novelty at the time—was used to get the foot chase on the bridge.

Review Conclusion w/ Consumer Recommendation

This movie is not so good as a whodunit; it's better as a farce; and as a commentary on '60s race relations, it's oh, so smooth. I liked it better than the book , it seemed to have more character than the story in print, but the book adds some inter­esting back­ground. A lot of how one takes it depends on what he brings to the table. It's enter­taining no matter what your views on the subject, although I'm probably speaking as a white man. I don't think it's offensive, and I recom­mend it for easy viewing.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Decent action scenes.

Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years.

Special effects: Well done special effects.

Video Occasion: Fit For a Friday Evening.

Overall product rating: Four stars out of Five.

Suspense: A few suspenseful moments.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Apocryphal scripture taken from The Septuagint with Apoc­rypha: Greek and English. U.S.A.: Hendrick­son Pub. Originally published by Samuel Bagster & Sons, Ltd., London, 1851. Print, WEB.

Ball, John. In the Heat of the Night. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1993. Print.