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In the heat of a Mississippi night, Officer Wood (Warren Oates) discovers the body of a wealthy industrialist dumped in a back alley. While the corpse is removed, Sparta's sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) tells his deputy to finish his morning rounds. And there, waiting at the train station is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a smartly dressed black stranger who the bigoted Woods suspects has committed the crime. Arrested and hauled back to Gillespie's office, Tibbs flashes his policeman's badge. The big city cop wants to catch the first train out of this redneck town and Gillespie wants him out, but Tibbs is ordered to stay and solve the crime. Everyone in Sparta is a suspect and no-one is happy about it.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Virgil Tibbs was arrested for murder because he was black, carried a wad full of cash and looked a little too flash in his "white man's clothes." Deputy Sam Wood is convinced that he has his man, and Sheriff Gillespie wants to believe him too - an expedient solution to a crime and a workload that already frightens him. It's then that Tibbs makes the phone call that establishes his credentials as Philadelphia's "number one homicide expert."

Tibbs has no intention of sticking around in this segregated town, but up north they insist that he stay. Gillespie wants the big city cop to at least "take a look" at the man in the morgue, but is more than happy to send him packing, once he has a second suspect (Scott Wilson) in the clink, caught in possession of the victim's wallet. Once again Tibbs makes monkeys of the local lawmen...but in the Deep South, Tibbs is out of town with these white trash nigger-baiters. With "no more smile than a turnip" Gillespie is as racist as the rest of them, but he needs the city boy to save his bacon...and Tibbs needs Gillespie to save his neck when the rednecks circle with malicious intent.

In The Heat Of The Night was named Best Picture by an Academy that was always more political than perceptive. As murder mysteries go, it isn't any great shakes and the plot fails to abide close scrutiny. Why, for example, doesn't Tibbs protest his innocence when first arrested by Wood; why wait until the face-off in Gillespie's office before flashing his badge? Sterling Silliphant's script, based on John Ball's unheralded novel, services the drama but struggles to be convincing and credible. Good Lord, at one stage even the deputy is behind bars when Gillespie makes another blithering blunder of the police work. In 1999 the New York Times named it as one of "The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made" but its reputation is steeled by the performances of the gum-chewing Steiger, who won an Oscar (having chewed 263 packs of gum during production) and Poitier who is quietly dignified and, to Gillespie, infuriatingly superior.

Their scenes together have tremendous power, both men barely able to conceal their contempt for each other but gradually gaining mutual respect...a microcosm of 200 years of racial tension condensed into two hours. This was four years after Martin Luther King bonded America with his "I have a dream" speech, but a generation before Rodney King had the stuffing knocked out of him by police in L.A., so history reminds us that the resentments are real. Bitter and lonely, with all his prejudice seeped in, Gillespie has a hard time accepting the black man's intellect...but Tibbs too has a stunning moment of self-revelation after a meeting with Sparta's insidious Mr Big. "I can bring that fat cat down," Tibbs crows in anticipated triumph, "I can bring him right off that hill!" Gillespie glares at him for a moment and drawls: "Oh boy, man, you're just like the rest of us, ain't ya?"

Published March 10, 2005

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(US, 1967)

CAST: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates

DIRECTOR: Norman Jewison

SCRIPT: Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by John Ball)

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.85:1 Aspect Ratio. Languages: English (mono), German (mono), Castellano (mono). Subtitles. Castellano, Greek, Hungarian, Portuguese. English & German for the hearing impaired.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Theatrical trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MGM Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: February, 2005

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