In the Heat of the Night (film)

In the Heat of the Night

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Norman Jewison
Produced by Walter Mirisch
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant
Based on In the Heat of the Night
by John Ball
Starring Sidney Poitier
Rod Steiger
Warren Oates
Lee Grant
Music by Quincy Jones
Cinematography Haskell Wexler, ASC
Edited by Hal Ashby
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • August 2, 1967 (1967-08-02)
Running time
109 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2 million[2]
Box office $24.3 million[3]

In the Heat of the Night is a 1967 American mystery drama film directed by Norman Jewison. It is based on John Ball's 1965 novel of the same name and tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi. The movie changes various details found in the book from relatively minor ones (in the book Tibbs is an police officer in California) to more major (basic details of the murder, including the victim, are different). It stars Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, and was produced by Walter Mirisch. The screenplay was by Stirling Silliphant.

The film won five Academy Awards, including the 1967 awards for Best Picture and Rod Steiger for Best Actor.

The film was followed by two sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! in 1970, and The Organization in 1971. In 1988, it also became the basis of a television series adaptation of the same name.

Although the film was set in the fictional Mississippi town of Sparta (with supposedly no connection to the real Sparta, Mississippi), part of the movie was filmed in Sparta, Illinois, where many of the film's landmarks can still be seen. The quote "They call me Mister Tibbs!" was listed as number 16 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes, a list of top film quotes. In 2002, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Phillip Colbert, a wealthy industrialist from Chicago, is constructing a factory in Sparta, Mississippi. One night, when driving back into town after a meeting in the plantation home of one of Sparta's leading citizens, Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), he is murdered. His body is found on the pavement at the front of an alley's entrance onto Main Street. Police Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) discovers the body during his patrol of Sparta at about 3:30 a.m. Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) arrives on the scene where the body has been discovered and begins by taking direct charge of the investigation. A local undertaker and freelance photographer have been summoned to the scene to assist the police, to take photographs, and do their best to support the beginning of the investigation. The undertaker tells Gillespie that it is his immediate guess that the death occurred no more than a couple of hours earlier than the time of Wood’s discovery of the body, around 1:30 a.m. Gillespie is also told by Wood that his patrol overall was quiet, without incident, and with no one seen. But Gillespie, speculating that the crime may have been committed by a transient, orders Wood to go back on his patrol and verify that the pool hall is closed (its hours had it open until 12:30 a.m.), the streets and alleyways are clear, and that the train and bus depots are clear as well.

At the unmanned train depot, Wood finds a black man, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), sitting quietly with his luggage in a business suit after 4:00 a.m., waiting on what seems to be no train. Officer Wood immediately arrests him (at gunpoint), cursorily searches him, and finds more than $100 in cash in his wallet. Wood takes him into the Sparta police station, where he presents him to Gillespie. Prejudiced against blacks, Gillespie jumps to the conclusion that he has his culprit (attempting to "flee" Sparta, via a train depot that is closed). But he's soon embarrassed to learn that Wood has arrested a Detective of the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) Police Department.

Tibbs, an experienced homicide detective, was simply passing through Sparta's depot, on a "blind transfer" - a change-in-trains at Sparta from Brownsville, where he was visiting his mother. After the racist treatment that he receives, Tibbs wants nothing more than to leave as quickly as possible, but his own chief, after questioning whether Tibbs himself is prejudiced, has him stay and help. Leslie Colbert (Lee Grant), the victim's widow, already frustrated by the ineptitude of the local police, is impressed by Tibbs's expertise when he clears another wrongly accused suspect whom Gillespie has arrested on circumstantial evidence. She threatens to stop construction on the much needed factory unless Tibbs leads the investigation. Unwilling to accept help, but under orders from the town's mayor, Gillespie talks a reluctant Tibbs into working on the case.

Despite the rocky start to their relationship, the two policemen are compelled to respect each other as they are forced to work together to solve the crime. Tibbs initially suspects wealthy plantation owner Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), a racist who publicly opposed the new factory. When Tibbs attempts to interrogate Endicott about Colbert, Endicott slaps him in the face, but Tibbs slaps him back, which leads to Endicott sending a gang of hooligans after Tibbs. Gillespie rescues him from the fight and orders him to leave town for his own safety, but Tibbs has caught the "scent"; he's on the trail of a murderer, and he's convinced he'll solve the case. He refuses to leave until he has solved it.

Tibbs's examination of Colbert's body has already placed the murder much earlier in the night than either Gillespie or the Sparta police had initially thought. He examined Colbert's car, and knows that it was used to drive the dead man's body back from an as yet unknown location where Colbert was actually killed.

Tibbs asks Wood to retrace his movements during his patrol shift on the night of the murder. Tibbs knows that an earlier time of death for Colbert means that Colbert was murdered, and his body driven around Sparta and dumped into an alley, all while Wood was on patrol. Tibbs and Gillespie accompany Wood on his patrol route, stopping at a diner where the counterman, Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James), refuses to serve Tibbs. When Tibbs notices that Wood has deliberately changed his route, Gillespie starts suspecting Wood of the crime. Tibbs indicates that he knows why Sam has changed his route but will not disclose the reason to Gillespie. When Gillespie discovers that Wood made a sizable deposit into his bank account the day after the murder (which Wood claims is gambling winnings) and Lloyd Purdy (James Patterson), a local, files charges against Wood for getting his 16-year-old sister Delores (Quentin Dean) pregnant, Gillespie arrests Wood for the murder, despite Tibbs's protests. Purdy is insulted that Tibbs, a black man, was present for his sister's interrogation about her sexual encounter with Wood, and he gathers a mob to get his revenge on Tibbs.

Tibbs is able to clear Wood by finding the original murder scene and pointing out that Sam would not have been able to drive two cars at the same time, his police patrol car and the victim's car. Tibbs also admits that he knew immediately that Wood changed his route not to hide the fact that he was a murderer, but was a peeping Tom (peeping on Delores Purdy, who herself is an exhibitionist), and declined to publicly reveal this in order to spare Wood embarrassment.

Acting on a hunch, Tibbs tracks down the local back-room abortionist, who reveals that someone had paid for Delores to have an abortion. When Delores arrives, Tibbs pursues her outside, where he is confronted by the murderer, Henshaw. Purdy's mob has tracked down Tibbs and is holding him at gunpoint when he proves to Purdy that it was Henshaw, not Wood, who got Delores pregnant, and Henshaw shoots Purdy dead before being disarmed by Tibbs. Henshaw is arrested and confesses to the murder of Colbert. He had robbed Colbert to gain money to pay for Delores's abortion, but had accidentally killed him in the process.

His job done, Tibbs finally boards the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio train out of town, after being bid farewell by a now respectful Gillespie.



The film contains a famous scene in which Tibbs and Gillespie visit the home of Eric Endicott to question him, following Tibbs' discovery of trace evidence in the murder victim's car (a piece of osmundine). Upon discovering that Tibbs is suggesting he murdered Colbert, Endicott slaps Tibbs. Tibbs slaps him back. Reportedly, Tibbs's action was originally omitted from the screenplay, which stayed true to the novel with Tibbs not reacting to the slap. However, when Poitier read the script, he was purportedly uncomfortable with that reaction, as it was not true to the values his parents instilled in him. He requested that the producers alter the scene to Tibbs slapping Endicott back. This was important because of the ongoing battle for civil rights, which was still raging in 1967, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was one of the first times in any major motion picture when a black man reacted to provocation from a white man in such a way.

Referring to the scene Poitier said, "[The scene] was almost not there. I said, 'I'll tell you what, I'll make this movie for you if you give me your absolute guarantee when he slaps me I slap him right back and you guarantee that it will play in every version of this movie.' I try not to do things that are against nature." However, Poitier's version of the story is contradicted by Mark Harris in his book, Pictures at a Revolution. Harris states that copies of the original draft of the screenplay that he obtained clearly contain the scene as filmed, which is backed up by Jewison and Silliphant.

The film is also important for being the first major Hollywood film in color that was lit with proper consideration for a person of African descent. Haskell Wexler recognized that standard strong lighting used in filming tended to produce too much glare on that kind of dark complexion and rendered the features indistinct. Accordingly, Wexler toned it down to feature Poitier with better photographic results.[4]


In contrast to films like The Chase and Hurry Sundown, which offered confused visions of the South, In the Heat of the Night offered a tough, edgy vision of a Southern town that seemed to hate outsiders more than itself, a theme reflecting the uncertain mood of the time as the Civil Rights Movement attempted to take hold. On this count, the film became an overnight hit, especially with the talents of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in place.

In a San Francisco pre-screening, Jewison was concerned when the young audience was laughing at the film as if it were a comedy. However, his editor, Hal Ashby, was convinced that they were appreciating the film with the amused satisfaction of a strong African American hero putting white bigots in their place. The audience's stunned reaction to the famous slapping scene convinced Jewison that the film was effective as drama.[5] That scene helped make the film so popular for audiences, finally seeing the top black film actor physically strike back against bigotry, that the film earned the nickname, Super-spade Versus the Rednecks.[6] During the film's initial run, Steiger and Poitier occasionally went to the Capitol Theatre in New York to amuse themselves seeing how many African American and white audience members there were, which could be immediately ascertained by listening to the former cheering Tibbs's retaliatory slap and the latter whispering "Oh!" in astonishment.[7]

Then-freshman critic Roger Ebert gave In the Heat of the Night a positive review and placed it at number ten on his top ten list of films that year.[8][9] AD Murphy of Variety magazine felt it was a good, but uneven film.[10] Another driving force was Canadian director Jewison; through this film, he wanted to tell a story of a white man and a black man working together in spite of tough ongoings. He also hated the way black Americans were treated by the white establishment at the time. Jewison, Poitier, and Steiger worked together and got along well during the filming, but Jewison had problems with the Southern authorities, and Poitier refused to come south of the Mason–Dixon Line for filming. Jewison therefore decided to film part of the film in Dyersburg (Endicott's house) and Union City, Tennessee, while the rest was filmed in Sparta, Chester (Harvey Oberst chase scene), and Freeburg (Compton's diner), Illinois: it worked out for everyone. It proved a conviction Jewison has held for a long time: he said on making film, "It's you against the world. It's like going to war. Everybody is trying to tell you something different and they are always putting obstacles in your way".

With the release of the film in the United States in August, Poitier was starring in two movies simultaneously at the box office as To Sir, with Love had been released the previous June.

The film, as of January 2014, holds a 95% "Certified Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, out of 44 reviews.[11]

Home media

In the Heat of the Night was first released on DVD in 2001. In 2010, the film was digitized in High Definition (1080i) and broadcast on MGM HD.

Other appearances

In episode 6 of Doctor Who's "Web of Fear", a poster for this film is shown in the background, with the movie title replaced by the words 'Block-Busters', presumably for copyright reasons.


The Academy Film Archive preserved In the Heat of the Night in 1997.[12]


In the Heat of the Night was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning five. They are as follows:[13]

Academy Award wins
Academy Award nominations
Other awards

American Film Institute recognition

Other nominations

See also


  1. "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (A)". British Board of Film Classification. July 17, 1967. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  2. Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry, Uni of Wisconsin Press, 1987 p 187
  3. "In the Heat of the Night, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved March 8, 2012.
  4. Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Films and the Birth of a New Hollywood. Penguin Press, 2008, p. 221.
  5. Harris, pp. 288–90.
  6. Harris, p. 336.
  7. Harris, pp. 335–6
  8. Ebert's 10 Best Lists: 1967 to Present. Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times via the Internet Archive. Retrieved October 18, 2016.
  9. The Best 10 Movies of 1967. Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved October 18, 2016.
  10. Later, Poitier did the sequels They Call Me MISTER Tibbs and The Organization, but both films failed at the box office.Variety review, 1967
  11. "In the Heat of the Night, Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 9, 2012.
  12. "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  13. "The 40th Academy Awards (1968) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-25.

External links

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