Welcome Back, Mister Tibbs: ‘In the Heat of the Night’ turns 50, screens at the Brattle

For its 50th anniversary, MGM has restored and revitalized director Norman Jewison’s 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night, which won Best Picture at that year’s Oscars and then promptly vacated everybody’s memories with the exception of the dope Ray Charles theme song.

Critics tended to canonize more transgressive works like Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke for their effects on rebellious white audiences, and the Sidney Poitier-starring cop drama also doesn’t fit comfortably into a number of easily quantifiable genres. It’s too early for blaxploitation, though its 1970 sequel, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, is now widely regarded as a precursor to that genre, and it’s too socially realist to be a comfortable cop drama, the murder at its core being the least compelling thing about it. It’s an odd duck of a picture, caught between eras, but remains utterly fascinating, especially given that it’s finally getting the treatment that it deserves. And it’s at the Brattle this Friday and Saturday (July 14 and 15).

In the Heat of the Night tells the story of a Philadelphia homicide detective named Virgil Tibbs, who’s mistakenly arrested in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, for the murder of a wealthy Northern industrialist. Or, at least it would be, if it were for the fact that our POV character is the Bull Connor figure, Rod Steiger’s Chief Gillespie, the overworked and deeply-resented law and order cop-with-a-secret-heart-of-gold-and-perhaps-a-Klan-robe. Seriously, Tibbs’ origins are teased out over the course of the first 30 minutes of the film, along with bits and pieces of details about the murder. So much time is used up in the first hour of the movie just getting Virgil on the case, and though much of it’s justified by the great work put in by Poitier (his scenes convincing a racist perp to trust him are excellent displays of his range), it constantly threatens to take the steam of out of the murder investigation, and Steiger’s shouting doesn’t help either; it’s a weird case of the “change ‘best’ to ‘most’ theory of awards season” threatening to overtake what is otherwise an excellent performance.

Finally, about 45 minutes in, Tibbs gets put on the case and we get one of the most incendiary scenes in ’60s Hollywood, in which Tibbs and Gillespie confront a wealthy landowner named Endicott in his greenhouse. The whole sequence is inundated with the direct calls to the iconic imagery of southern racism — from the sharecroppers tending to the cotton in the fields to the lawn jockey that Gillespie pets as he enters the plantation home, it’s a descent for Tibbs into white hell itself, accompanied, in a way, by his own southern racist Virgil, there to guide him through the horror. After an awful speech about how “negroes” are like a particular kind of orchid he tends to, Poitier reveals to him the reason that the cops are in his presence: They think he might be a person of interest. Endicott’s stunned that this accusation is being made to him, especially coming from a black man, and he walks over and slaps Tibbs across the face.

Tibbs slaps him back, and Endicott can barely hold back tears.

It’s a truly transgressive moment in ’60s mainstream cinema, and it still has a surprising ferocity and power to it today. Everything about the scene is perfect, from the framing, to the gentle camera movement, to the performances: Released barely two years after Selma and three years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, this scene was a shot across the bow and legitimately stunned people after its release. Poitier and Jewison used to go around to theaters when the film first came out and wait for audiences to see this scene, and they’d listen to the reactions and laugh a little. Honestly, it’s easy to recommend seeing at the Brattle this weekend simply for how your audience will react to that scene alone (and please god let them react). It’s a revolutionary wedge that very well might be the reason it won Best Picture at the 1968 Oscars.

Noted critic Mark Harris (you may know him from the Netflix series based on his work Five Came Back) has a thesis about the film, posited in Pictures at a Revolution, his book about the 40th Academy Awards, is that it was a somewhat safe choice for the Academy, squarely in the middle of a conflict between the Old Hollywood (represented by the other Poitier feature Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the tired and empty spectacle of Doctor Dolittle) and the New (the nouvelle vague-influenced Bonnie and Clyde and transgressive Mike Nichols feature The Graduate).

Harris is totally right about this. There are moments of gleeful flippancy towards the prevailing ideals of the day — the idea of a successful black cop coming in and helping to solve a murder in a small Southern town is still enough to rile up the prejudiced in the modern day, and that’s even before he slaps a member of the gentry — but they’re undercut by Jewison’s reluctance to let these moments go unchallenged, and it removes some of their revolutionary power. There’s no falser note in the film than when Steiger’s Gillespie challenges Tibbs’ hardened focus on the white and powerful Endicott by saying that he’s just the same as everybody else in the prejudiced South, and though it probably helped to prevent whites from fleeing the theater in 1967, it has aged terribly, given that just four years later films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft would entrance a number of audiences, free of that hand-holding for its white audience.

Still, there’s a number of laudable aspects about this film, perhaps most notably Haskell Wexler’s excellent cinematography, which was revolutionary in aspects and masterful in others. For the former, he insured that Poitier was properly lit in each of his scenes, after seeing how traditional forms of Hollywood lighting would obscure the actor’s features, and it would be the first studio film to compensate for that. And if you look at Poitier’s work, you can see a clear before and after, with this film squarely in the middle. Wexler’s work is basically responsible for any aspect of this film looking like it came from the South, and his murky, muted colors give an appearance of heat and decay. His camera movement is impeccable — just look at the slap again, and notice his careful glide as he follows Endicott across the room near Tibbs, assisted by Jewison’s swell blocking– and he’s almost responsible for every iconic thing about the film, short of Poitier himself and Quincy Jones’ bluesy score. Wexler himself was a year away from directing his own iconic film, the Robert Forster-starring docudrama Medium Cool, and you can see bits and pieces of that work here in its starkness, and in the occasional moment of handheld camera work; a “fight” scene later in the film where Poitier gets harassed by four Southern locals is rawer and more immediate than many of its contemporaries, and is a fascinating precursor to the riots at the ‘68 Democratic Convention that make Medium Cool so iconic.

If there’s any reason to see the remastered version, it’s that Wexler’s impressive work has been cleaned up and restored to its former glory (the transfer available on DVD and on most streaming services is atrocious, and it’s nice to see that this crime against cinema has been rectified). That’s not to shame other aspects of the film: Poitier’s work as Virgil Tibbs is as iconic as it’s always been, and his indignant rage at being mistreated by a bunch of good ol’ boys conflicting with his desire to see justice served is endlessly compelling. Steiger’s performance has aged for the worse, but even then, he’s got some truly impressive moments sprinkled throughout, such as the scene in which he has to beg Tibbs not to get back on the train after a series of prejudiced errors causes detective to want to flee Sparta. There’s also a compelling performance by Warren Oates as an officer and a peeping tom, and it’s Oates’ lusty Coke-swilling idiot who gives much of In the Heat of the Night its sweat-stained Tennessee Williams-like lust, pushing the noir thriller straight into the boiling Southern deep-fryer. Hell, even a young Harry Dean Stanton makes an appearance (uncredited, but when you see him…) so it’s got the bonafides.

To put it bluntly, In the Heat of the Night is worth your time to rewatch this weekend, for nothing more than the cathartic power buried within it and Haskell Wexler’s gorgeous cinematography. It’s aged a little worse than you might think, and parts of it look exceptionally tacky in a modern context, but it’s an important and fascinating film that’s worth of your respect. And you’ll get a massive shock to the system at one point, and the swampy southern sleaze is the perfect accompaniment to the mid-July swelter.

‘IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT’ :: Friday, July 14 and Saturday, July 15 at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St. in Cambridge, MA :: Check listings for showtimes, all ages, $8 to $11 :: Brattle film page