Thursday, January 15, 2015

AFI Top 100: #75 "In the Heat of the Night"

Sidney Poitier & Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night (1967)

I always want to follow the words "In the heat of the night" with "we are having a fiesta." Thanks Aqua, for the catchy tune. No? Just me? Okay. Anyways, this week's AFI Top 100 movie might be one of the lesser known flicks in the bunch. In the Heat of the Night may have won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1967, and marked a decade of brilliant staring roles from Sidney Poitier... but it's biggest claim to our memories comes in the form of one single, famous line: "They call me Mr. Tibbs!"

You've heard the line, that's for certain, though you may not have been able to name the movie it was from. Well. It's from this one. Set in the small Mississippi town of Sparta, it begins with a murder in the dead of night. The cops in this town are on the lookout to find a killer, and one unknowing Deputy Sheriff finds, sitting at the local train station, Mr. Virgil Tibbs (Poitier). Seeing this well-dressed, stoic black man immediately sets off alarms in this cop's head, and Tibbs is dragged in to meet with Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger). None of these uniforms can stifle their hostile racism, and immediately assume Tibbs is their murderer.

Just as they begin to celebrate how smart they are, it's all egg on their faces when Tibbs reveals he's actually a Homicide Detective from Boston just passing through on his way to Nashville. While Tibbs can't wait to get the hell out of this terrible place, Gillespie soon realizes that the police in Sparta are in way over their heads. He convinces Tibbs to stay on to help find the real killer, despite the rampant danger than presents itself when an intelligent and not-even-kind-of-submissive black man starts interrogating suspects in the South.

I never found this movie particularly memorable. There were moments, glimpses of brilliance, all related to Tibbs and his Django Unchained-esque bitch-slapping of every racist shithead in the town (literally!) Yet the plot itself always just... slipped away from memory. I realized this viewing why that is: in its own way, In the Heat of the Night is like a very special and star-studded episode of "Law and Order." In fact, it's exactly like "Law and Order."

The murder in the cold open. The introduction of various suspects. The interviewing sequences of townspeople that "totally aren't involved" but "turns out they kinda are", which is a plot structure we are all too familiar with. Our key characters are interesting. They're why we watch. The unlikely partnership of Tibbs and Gillespie, very "buddy cop," only... racist. The formula isn't unique at this point, but there was a time when it was. And Poitier is such an astounding talent, he kind of stands out surrounded by such a mediocre murder mystery.

That being said, there are aspects of this movie that are not ordinary. Particularly, the music. Songs by Ray Charles and music score by Quincy Jones, it might be my favorite soundtrack so far on this list, at least since Pulp Fiction. It makes the film seem ahead of its time. Even the opening credit sequence was far and away more dynamic than others of the decade. Graphic, colorful, and edited to popular music ("In the Heat of the Night" by Ray Charles, of course). These components kept me focused, and raised the bar just enough to highlight why this movie was worth watching.

Do I think that this is an epic story of century? Hardly. It's not even Poitier's best, as far as I'm concerned. I would choose To Sir, With Love or Lilies of the Field ahead of this one any daybut In the Heat of the Night spawned a sequel, a TV show, and again, one of the most famous lines in cinema history. I'm not sure if that merits inclusion on a list of America's greatest films, but it certainly created characters fascinating enough that audiences didn't want to part ways with them.

And Tibbs is a bad-ass. It's hard not to love someone who is smarter than everyone who doubts him.

Rating:  ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next week for #74, The Silence of the Lambs  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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