Film Score: Quincy Jones Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates and Lee Grant
Lilies of the Field. It was the first time a black actor had won an Oscar for anything in twenty-five years. But clearly this was a token, as the Academy wouldn’t see fit to do it again for another twenty years when Lou Gossett Jr. won a supporting actor Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982. In the meantime, however, Poitier continued to star in powerful dramas like In the Heat of the Night that pointedly dealt with the black experience in America and the struggle blacks face every day to be afforded the same respect and dignity that whites give to each other as a matter of course. And looked at in that light it’s not surprising at all that the Academy ignored him during the rest of the sixties. The story began as a novel by John Ball from two years earlier that won an Edgar Award for best first novel. The idea is a brilliant one, a white police officer and a black one working together in the South almost against their wills, especially as it’s set against the Civil Rights movement of the mid-sixties. It’s easy to see why it struck a chord with audiences and went on to be nominated for seven Oscars and won five, including best picture of 1967 and best screenplay for Stirling Silliphant’s adaptation. Of course Sidney Poitier was completely ignored by the Academy. They would let him win for portraying a black man helping nuns to build a church, but not for playing a black man standing up for his rights as a human being in the American South.
The film begins with the unmistakable voice of Ray Charles singing the title song. A train pulls into a sleepy Southern town in Mississippi and deposits Sidney Poitier at the station. At the diner across town police officer Warren Oates is just finishing supper, but when he heads back out in his cruiser he finds Jack Teter dead in a downtown alley. Later a gum-chewing Rod Steiger shows up to take over the crime scene. Oates is sent out to check the train station and when he finds Poitier he arrests him immediately. Of course the cops try to intimidate him, and his refusal to be scared makes Steiger reconsider him ever so slightly. But he’s really taken aback when he learns that Poitier is a police officer in Philadelphia. The first good thing that happens is Steiger chews out Oates for not questioning Poitier, and after a call to his chief everything is straightened out. Except that when Steiger finds out he’s the number one homicide detective in the city, he actually floats the idea that maybe Poitier can help solve their murder for them. Against his better judgment--and since his train doesn’t leave until noon the next day--Poitier decides to do it. But that’s just the beginning of the hostilities. Poitier is used to acting like a cop, not a cowed black man in the Jim Crow South, and Steiger chafes at having to defend him. Even when Steiger wants him to quit the case, Poitier won’t back down.
It’s actually an interesting case that isn’t solved very easily. But the longer Poitier stays around, the more hidden Southern indiscretions he winds up uncovering, and he’s in a place where people are not going to sit still for a black man uncovering their secrets even with Steiger’s protection. There are two standout moments in the film, one obvious and the other less so. The first one is early on when Steiger gets irritated because he has a suspect and Poitier says he’s innocent. So when Steiger tries to make fun of his first name and asks what they call him up in Philadelphia he says, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” The line is so good that it was used for the title of the misguided sequel three years later. The second comes near the end of the film when the two are over at Steiger’s house, and for a moment they forget that they’re enemies, just talking the way cops will. When Steiger talks about being lonely, and Poitier commiserates with him, suddenly Steiger frowns and says, “Don’t get smart, black boy. No pity, thank you.” In a time honored code of the South, blacks are not allowed to feel sorry for whites because it would mean that they are lower than blacks in some way. No matter how poor off a white person is, they still have to be seen in their own minds as better than blacks.
As good as Sidney Poitier is, and he is tremendous, Rod Steiger is magnificent as the redneck police chief who gradually has to concede that Poitier is good at his job and not only the equal but the better of his small police department. As a result, Steiger won an Oscar for his performance. Lee Grant, in a very small role, is the dead man’s wife and she was fortunate to be given such a realistic part instead of the clichéd writing that is usually foisted upon this type of character. William Schallert shows up as the mayor, and an impossibly young Matt Clark makes a surprise appearance later on. In the early seventies there were some incredibly good film scores for crime dramas that utilized soul and jazz music, but this isn’t one of them. Quincy Jones was ahead of the curve, perhaps, but even sixties scores like Bullitt by Lalo Schifrin were much better than this. Had he stayed with the blues sensibility that opened the film it could have been great, but as it stands the pre-Shaft music is lackluster by comparison. The two songs by Ray Charles are the only really memorable tunes. Other Oscars went to the sound design team and to Harold Ashby for his editing of the picture. But In the Heat of the Night will always be remembered best for capturing a particular time in this country’s social history, and offering the promise of hope amid the harsh realities of oppression.