In the Heat of the Night, 1967 Movie

In the Heat of the Night, 1967 Movie

Last Saturday, July 27, 2013, I felt compelled to again watch the 1967 movie, In the Heat of the Night. This movie won Academy awards for the best actor and for the best movie. Its theme about racial prejudice in a small southern town was obvious. But more compelling than the theme itself was the movie’s plot and its acting. Without the thoughtful performances of Mr. Steiger, Mr. Portier and others the plot that develops the racial theme would have been uninteresting and perhaps unconvincing 3 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even Mr. Portier’s role as a spiffily suited Chicago homicide expert travelling to visit his mother and waiting on a Mississippi depot bench for a train, might have seemed a bit contrived. But the racial conflict resulting between him and the town of Sparta policeman who arrested him simply because he was black in a place restricted to whites allowed the apparent unreality of Mr’ Portier’s journey to become eclipsed by both actors’ convincing dramatization of their stereotyped roles. This prized homicide expert from Chicago Illinois sitting on a Sparta Mississippi depot bench was simply a staging device to illustrate how easily blacks might become victims of racial injustice even by a fellow police officer’s dutifully conforming to the attitudes of his isolated southern community. and is soon forgotten in the suspenseful guessing about what might happen next to that Chicago detective, Mr. Tibbs. In a sense most of the scenes of In the Heat of the Night have a similar quality of contrived unreality, from Sparta’s Sheriff’s instinctive belief that Mr. Tibbs, a black northerner, ironically a homicide officer, was himself the likely murderer of investor Mr.Colbert, to the self assured Sheriff’s slowly motoring to overtake and capture the trotting next murder suspect and finally the Sheriff’s turning on his own deputy Sergeant Wood who had arrested Mr. Tibbs, the first murder suspect. In fact almost all of these arrests and suspicions happen unexpectedly; though when they occur they stimulate curiosity and suspense and their seeming unreality can be seen as dramatizations of Sparta’s simplistic mentality of jumping to conclusions. And it is Steiger’s realistic portrayal of the bumbling Sheriff Gillespie’s actions that make the apparent incongruousness of his impulsive arrests seem real. From his first appearing ear-to -his-window-air conditioner, to his being ordered by Sparta’s mayor to accept the help of Mr Tibbs against his segregationist society’s inclinations, to his naïve acceptance of whatever slight evidence might seem to confirm the murderer’s guilt -even his own deputy’s- what in reality might seem unbelievable Mr. Steiger’s acting makes real. Like Steiger’s character’s abrupt and impulsive murder arrests, a startling slapping scene also illustrates how in this place, even the upper crust of Sparta society, represented by Eric Endicott, an influential plantation owner, can without justified provocation erupt into startlingly violent action.