This post is published as part of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Angelman’s Place‘s Lee Grant Blogathon.
Arguably every bit as topical and important now as it was when it was released, “In The Heat Of The Night” tells the story of a black Police Detective, Virgil Tibbs (a superb Sidney Poitier) who finds himself pressed into assisting in the investigation of a murder in a racist town in the deep south of America. Standing uneasily between Tibbs and the hostile townsfolk is the local Chief Of Police Gillespie (an exceptional Rod Steiger) a man who must confront his own prejudices as he grudgingly learns to respect the urbane interloper.
Although her role is a small one, Lee Grant is a powerful and pivotal influence on the narrative of the film. As the widow of the murdered man, it is her insistence on justice – and her ability and willingness to use her late husband’s hanging-in-the-balance investment in the town – that brings the reluctant police officers together and prevents other prejudiced parties from driving Tibbs out of town. In the hands of a less accomplished actress, it’s a role that could easily have faded into the background, especially given the powerhouse performances from Steiger and Poitier but instead she brings a steely resolve and implacable irresistibility to the role that ensures, despite the powerful forces trying to tear apart the [reluctant] partnership of the men who will ultimately catch her husband’s killer, she is enough to keep them together.
Director Norman Jewison isn’t in the mood for subtlety as he brings a stark, raw vision of the seething hatred at the heart of small-town southern America at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and while the screenplay is somewhat erratic and distracted in its unravelling of the murder mystery at its centre (the case is eventually solved and the killer identified in a rushed and somewhat unsatisfying denouement which feels unearned and slightly arbitrary) it’s the performances and characters who become the central focus.
Notable for its defining themes, the ‘slap heard around the world’ – an iconic moment in cinema history when bigoted plantation owner Endicott (Larry Gates) strikes Tibbs only for Tibbs to strike him right back – and the performance of the main cast, cinematically it’s all a little bit underwhelming. The camera work is sluggish and shots are often held so long they become distracting rather than daring and the editing and structure often don’t help the mystery to flow as well as it could. On the other hand, the score, by Quincy Jones, is superb, as is the title song performed by Ray Charles, helping to build the atmosphere and underline the conflicted nature of American society, then and now.