The Best Picture Project – In The Heat of the Night (1967)

Directed by Norman Jewison

Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, Based on the novel by John Ball

Starring Rod Steiger, Sidney Poitier and Warren Oates

At this point in The Best Picture Project, I’ve seen 38 Best Picture Winners – 39 if you count this film – which amounts to roughly half of the Academy’s big winners.    After seeing all those films I’d like to think I have a pretty good grasp on what the Academy prefers.  Generally they like their movies light and airy and uplifting, but occasionally they get a yen for something epic or even a little bit edgy, as long as both are ultimately sunny.  In short, they like ‘safe’ films, the kind that are likely to offend the fewest number of people.

Given the Academy’s preferences, a film like In The Heat of the Night taking Best Picture is actually fairly shocking.  Unlike past winners, like Gigi! and Around the World in 80 Days,  In The Heat of the Night eschews mindless entertainment and the problems that only seem to exist in the movies.  Instead it runs away from being ‘safe’ and jumps feet first into a very real problem.  Ostensibly, the movie is about the murder of some rich northerner come to a southern town to build a factory, but really, the mystery isn’t the thing.  It’s the racism.

Poitier Tibbs.jpgOf course, I know it’s not fair to say the Academy never tackles tough issues.  After all, there was The Best Years of Our Lives in the 40s, and Kramer v. Kramer in the 70s, but the issues those films tackled weren’t all that divisive.  Everybody agrees that returning war veterans need support and understanding, and pretty much everybody agrees that men shouldn’t be shafted in divorce proceedings simply by virtue of being men.  Racism, though, is a different thing.  After all, George Wallace was standing in school house doors in 1963 in his attempt to keep his promise of “Segregation now, segregation forever” and the Civil Rights Act was only passed in 1964, meaning that by 1967, when In The Heat of the Night was winning Best Picture, it was still a bit tender along the racial divide.  Trying to equate The Best Years of Our Lives and Kramer v. Kramer with In The Heat of the Night as the preeminent issue movies to win Best Picture is a bit of a misstatement, because people don’t fight to the death over veterans rights and divorce rights.  When it comes to civil rights and racism, though, they do.

Strangely, 40 years on, the movie seems a bit of a mystery in some ways, especially if you don’t have a real frame of reference for the issues raised in the movie.  When I sat down to watch the movie both of my children watched it with me.  Though the movie is meant to be explosive, my 14 year old daughter fell asleep and  my 11 year old son just couldn’t understand why all the white people kept calling all the black people ‘boy.’  Perhaps in some ways it’s a credit to movies like In The Heat of the Night for helping to bring together the racial divide and drive certain racist tendencies out of America and make it a less divisive place, but if that’s so, it’s also a movie that works to blunt its own long-lasting power.

Today, the film seems like a bit of a relic and without the initial explosively racial attitudes to charge the atmosphere of the film, its shortcomings stand right out.  First is that neither Poitier nor Steiger seem to be giving an outstanding performance.  All Poitier is aiming for is upright dignity and he achieves it, but that isn’t a great performance.  Similarly, Steiger’s bit of gum chewing and scenery chewing don’t hardly smack of the type of performance that should win Best Actor, even if he did.

The second, and really the far more important issue, was that the film is filled with too many reversals.  First Poitier is suspected, then when he’s not, they try to run him out of town.  But wait, he wants to stay, then they want him to stay and then he wants to go and…and it’s all too much.  Never mind that at least five separate suspects emerge for the crime, for various reasons, and all are presumed to be the killer and speeches and accusations are made until the police kind of shrug and say “Oops,” and move on to the next guy.  I don’t know if this is how police investigations work in real life or not, but in the movie it was endlessly distracting and made almost everybody seem a bit like an amateur.

Shortcomings or not, though, the film did have several great sequences, my particular favorite being the scene where the rich white man slaps Poitier and then, Poitier slaps him back.  Even without the issue of race hanging over it, it remains a stunning scene, made all the more intense by that slightly disapproving look the butler gives the rich white man at the end of the scene.

Sadly, for me, In The Heat of the Night is not the Best Picture of 1967.  Perhaps it’s because the message of the film is blunted by time, or maybe it’s something else, but I have always preferred a different film.  Certainly, Bonnie and Clyde was a good movie, and many people would hail it for being a landmark, but every time I see The Graduate on TV, which seems to be a lot on TCM, I can’t help but watch.  That film, for me, seems timeless, while In The Heat of the Night is just another issue picture that only really matters if you were there.


The central mystery of In The Heat of the Night involves a man trying to rob another to pay for an abortion and accidentally killing him instead.  Only in a racism picture could the issue of abortion be completely overlooked.

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

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