In the 1960s, the legendary Sidney Poitier was at the top of his game. Always an incredible screen presence, he delivered unforgettable performances in films like “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “Lilies of the Field,” which earned him his one and only Academy Award and made him the first African-American to win one for Best Actor. However, the most lauded film he would work on that decade was “In the Heat of the Night,” which garnered five Oscars that included Best Picture. Here he gives us another powerhouse performance in a film that still resonates with audiences over 50 years later, making it a great choice for entry into the prestigious Criterion Collection.
The film begins in the small, quiet town of Sparta, Mississippi, where a body is discovered by a police officer. The murdered man was looking to build a factory in the town, which would create thousands of jobs, but a motive is not immediately discerned. The officer brings it to the attention of the local sheriff, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), who orders the town to be searched for suspicious people, resulting in Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) being brought to the station for questioning. As it turns out, Virgil is a black police officer/detective from Philadelphia who just happened to be waiting for a train when picked up. With a murder on their hands that they don’t know how to deal with, Virgil is ordered by his Chief to assist Gillespie with the investigation, forcing him to deal with a town of racists as he attempts to solve the case.
So what has made “In the Heat of the Night” a film that has endured for so many decades? For starters, it’s simply a very compelling story. Murder mysteries can be spellbinding when told with such skill, making it no surprise that screenwriter Stirling Silliphant won the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, adapting the novel by John Ball. He weaves together two excellent lead characters, a group of potential suspects, and plenty of twists and turns into a fascinating whodunit that has you gripped every step of the way. As far as the narrative goes, the only complaint to be had is that it all wraps up rather neatly. There are some pretty big leaps/guesses made at the end that just happen to be right, leading right up to the resolution. It’s not too bothersome, but a slightly more solid third act might have played a little better.
While the narrative may be the foundation of the film, the two main characters and their relationship are its heart. When these two first meet, Gillespie immediately assumes that Virgil is the murderer based on racial profiling alone, but when it’s proven shortly after that he’s not, and can be of great help to the investigation, their interactions quickly begin to change. At first, it’s a kind of begrudging cooperation, but as time passes and Virgil shows just how good he is at his job, their relationship evolves into a sort of uneasy friendship, providing a dynamic that helps drive much of the film.
To bring these characters to life, the filmmakers had to find actors of great skill, which they found in both Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. However, if we’re being honest, this is truly Poitier’s film. He steals every scene he’s in with his mesmerizing, magnetic screen presence. Even in the simplest of scenes, his body language and expressions leave the viewer captivated. This makes it rather shocking that it was Steiger who got all of the awards attention that year, including the Oscar for Best Actor, while Poitier wasn’t even nominated. Don’t get me wrong, Steiger gives a wonderful performance, but Poitier is easily the biggest highlight of the film.
Throw in Norman Jewison’s Oscar-nominated direction, Quincy Jones’ catchy music, and Hal Ashby’s excellent Oscar-winning Film Editing, and it’s not hard to see why the film has endured as a classic. Sure, it’s probably not the film that immediately jumps to mind when discussing Best Picture winners of the ‘60s, but it’s a film that people tend to remember quite fondly for all of these reasons and more. It was a showcase for some exquisite talent, and proves to have great rewatchability because of it. “In the Heat of the Night” has stood the test of time with critics and audiences alike, and will likely continue to do so for a long time to come.
“In the Heat of the Night” comes to Criterion Blu-ray in a gorgeous 1.85:1, 4K digital restoration that makes the film look brand new again. In typical Criterion fashion, the utmost care has gone into cleaning up the film, which has resulted in significant grain reduction and a beautifully sharp image. Likewise, the uncompressed monorail soundtrack has been completely restored, giving you all of the dialogue and Quincy Jones’ incredible score in outstanding quality. Overall, Criterion has once again done remarkable work here, giving us the best possible release of this Best Picture-winning classic.
Audio Commentary with Norman Jewison, Haskel Wexler, Rod Steiger, and Lee Grant: A fascinating commentary track from 2008 in which the director, cinematographer, and two cast members discuss the making of the film, revealing lots of compelling behind-the-scenes info along the way.
Norman Jewison Interview (13 Minutes): A 2018 interview with the director in which he reminisces about making the film.
Sidney Poitier Interview (8 Minutes): An excerpt from a 2006 AFI special in which Poitier discusses the film.
Lee Grant Interview (15 Minutes): A 2018 interview with the actress in which she talks about her career and her character (Mrs. Colbert).
Aram Goudsouzian Interview (18 Minutes): A 2018 interview with the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis and author of “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon” in which he discusses Poitier’s career and his place in history.
Turning Up the Heat: Movie-Making in the ‘60s (21 Minutes): A program from 2008 that takes a look behind the scenes of the production of the film, featuring interviews with director Norman Jewison, producer Walter Mirisch, and more.
Quincy Jones: Breaking New Sound (13 Minutes): A 2008 program which delves into the film’s music, featuring interviews with Quincy Jones and others.
Thanks to its compelling narrative, memorable characters, and above all, a towering performance from the legendary Sidney Poitier, “In the Heat of the Night” continues to resonate with audiences over 50 years after its release. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray comes packed with about 90 minutes of informative extras that delve into the film’s production, and of course presents the film in the best quality possible. Whether you’re already a fan of the film, or just seeing it for the first time, this release is most definitely worth adding to your shelf.