'In the Heat of the Night': THR's 1967 Review

In the Heat of the Night Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Everett Collection

In the Heat of the Night Still - H 2014

A gripping and suspenseful murder mystery.

On August 2, 1967, In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier, opened in theaters in New York. The film would go on to win five Oscars at the 40th Academy Awards, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

In the Heat of the Night, a Norman Jewison-Walter Mirisch production for Mirisch Corp., for United Artists release, is a gripping and suspenseful murder mystery that effects a feeling of greater importance by its veneer of social significance and the illusion of depth in its use of racial color.

The greatest significance lies in the breakthrough of the Negro detective hero in the John Ball novel from which Stirling Silliphant adapted the screenplay, Sidney Poitier’s creation of the character on the screen and the potential for sequels in subsequent Ball novels. Jewison’s direction is flashy and fast, consistently redirecting our attention from red herring in shallow waters to melodramatic confrontations on the color line, taking advantage of the possibilities for ridicule inherent in every northern liberal’s view of the South. Despite the social attitudes in which the characters are clothed, they occupy familiar positions in the detective story genre, and should be equally entertaining to Dixie audiences. The film should prompt enthusiastic word of mouth and will emerge one of the top box-office winners of the year.

Ball and Silliphant have drawn their characters from the sort of southern cliches that have long made the southern playwrights and novelists prone to satire. In fairness, the prototypes have made frequent appearances on TV network news programs. The locale is a cracker community in Mississippi where the police and the majority of the townspeople we meet are redneck cutouts. The body of a wealthy industrialist, upon whom the town’s economy is dependent, is found murdered in an alley. Poitier, one of the top homicide investigators in Philadelphia (Penn.), is apprehended at the train station.

We get to laugh at the police several times for their foolishness in arresting a police officer who is their intellectual and monied superior. Chief of police Rod Steiger, who has never handled an important murder case and doesn’t know his facts in this hole-in-the-wall burg, must reluctantly enlist Poitier’s help to solve the case. Poitier is gifted with an uncanny knack for taking the long jump to the right conclusions, coming up with evidence to save the suspects the police try to railroad into guilt at the same time he is solving the case for them. He encounters the familiar benevolent bigot, chain rattling toughs, an aged Negro abortionist who eradicated the white man’s sins, and a babydoll sexpot. Of course, the vigilantes are massing to liquidate the uppity detective as soon as the sun goes down.

The local residents have limited vocabularies, but find that “boy” is a suitable substitute for punctuation. A circuitous sidetrip to question the paternalistic bigot seems little more than an excuse to have Poitier slap him, with the bigot whimpering that a few years back he could have had Poitier killed for that. There is the inevitable moment that Poitier steps out of line and Steiger strikes a Big Knife pose, growling, “You’re just like the rest of ‘em, aren’t you?” The point is that, perhaps because it is so obvious, it consistently works, and Jewison has directed in such a manner as to cue the hisses and cheers. It is like going to hear a “controversial” lecture with which you are in total agreement, all the responses primed. 

Unfortunately, Jewison does not always resist conspicuous intrusion into the fun. His cameras linger on shots of flies on coffee cups, counters, hands and meringue pies, Steiger’s jaws grinding Juicy Fruit. The sequence in which suspect Scott Wilson is captured on a bridge is robbed of all impact by a curious selection of angles. Poitier’s assault by teenage toughs is straight out of a switchblade movie with tilted angles and garish color. Haskell Wexler’s DeLuxe color cinematography sustains a moody dramatic contrast and visual interest, but his complicity with Jewison in those self-conscious anglings sacrifice scene logic and point of view. 

Poitier’s excellent performance both transcends and lifts the pretensions of the film, eschewing earlier mannerisms and projecting a wealth of emotion in facial communication. Steiger’s role lacks dimension and it is only in a poignant, late scene with Poitier in his apartment and in the inevitable parting in friendship and understanding that he is allowed to turn off the steam. Lee Grant’s beautifully underplayed role as the widow of the dead man is outstanding, while Scott Wilson scores with impact as the wrongly accused. Warren Oates creates another pleasant cartoon as the deputy, while James Patterson, Beah Richards, Anthony James and Khalil Bezaleel stand out in the fine supporting cast. Quentin Dean’s titillating sexpot is overdone for such an overlong scene. 

Quincy Jones’ score is one of the film’s best components, with interesting thrashing effects in the chase sequences and a brassy-bluesy mood to amplify the humidity. Hal Ashby’s editing is crisp, though he could have tightened the chase sequence to preserve greater impact. Other technical credits are tops and generate a feeling of authenticity and expert exploitation of location sites. Marilyn and Alan Bergman wrote the lyrics for the title song, performed by the distinctive Ray Charles both over the credits and imposed once in the body of the film. The Bergmans also collaborated with Jones on a number of cornpone wails heard on various radios. — John Mahoney, originally published June 21, 1967.

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