Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

In the Heat of the Night


There are movies that you remember where you were when you first saw them, and this is one. It was in a theater on Market Street in San Francisco, now long gone to urban development. The audience was pretty demonstrative, and they were solidly on the side of Mister Virgil Tibbs. There was cheering when Virgil revealed that he was a police detective, and not the usual nigger they were going to frame for murder.

It is done well in so many different ways. It won Best Actor for Rod Steiger. (It was a tough year. Steiger had to beat Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman for Cool Hand Luke and Spencer Tracy.) It also won for Best Picture. (Against Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (A very over-rated movie, in my opinion.) (The less said about the other nominee, Doctor Doolittle, the better.) (Lee and I differ here. She is happy that In the Heat of the Night won. I’m not unhappy at all, but I give the slight edge—very slight—to Bonnie and Clyde.)

We can easily forget just how actually dangerous it was to make this film. Sidney Poitier said he would only take the part if he didn’t have to go below the Mason-Dixon Line. And he was right. His life could very well have been in danger. So they found a little town in southern Illinois to stand in for Sparta, Mississippi. Happily, it was also named Sparta, so the signage didn’t have to be changed!

The DVD extras include extensive stuff about the music, by Quincy Jones. He was not the giant he is now, being known mostly in the jazz community. This score was revolutionary, stepping far, far away from the standard dramatic scores of the day. It was all anchored by the splendid voice of Ray Charles singing the title song over the credits, which got us right into the story and set scene and the mood. I’m glad I saw this again. I had forgotten just how great it is.