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In the Heat of the Night

Winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1967, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT remains a powerful crime drama more than five decades after its release.

Sidney Poitier is terrific as Philadelphia Detective Virgil Tibbs, waiting for his connecting train in the backwater, racial powder keg Sparta, Mississippi. He’s an immediate suspect in a murder that just happened, solely because of the color of his skin. Tibbs is hauled into the Mayberry like police station and confronted by local police Chief Bill Gillespie. Rod Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Gillespie, a backward lawman who makes up in volume what he lacks in brains.

He’s astonished that Tibbs is the leading homicide detective “up North” and reluctant when Tibbs is asked to help solve the murder. Watching Poitier and Steiger go toe-to-toe as Tibbs and Gillespie is powerful. The Oscar winning screenplay by Stirling Silliphant (Telefon, The New Centurions) is loaded with great moments and stirring dialogue.

The supporting cast is great, including Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch) as the bumbling deputy who discovers the body, Lee Grant (Shampoo) as the widow of the wealthy businessman who's been slain and Larry Gates (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as the other rich man in town who becomes a prime suspect.

Quincy Jones composed a terrific jazz/action score that bathes the entire film in sweat and Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Conversation) created the incredible look of the film, capturing the poverty of the town and the lonely existence of many of its population.

I loved the scenes with Tibbs making deductions based on the evidence in direct conflict to Gillespie’s considerable gut, balanced with a quiet (and mostly improvised) conversation in Gillespie’s living room that’s as close to honesty as he’ll allow himself to show to Tibbs.

Poitier would go on to play the detective in two enjoyable sequels, “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” in 1970 and “The Organization” in 1971. He’s legendary in this role and hugely enjoyable to watch.

It’s horrifying to realize that they could not film this classic in Mississippi, due to the fact that Poitier and Harry Belafonte were almost killed by the KKK in Mississippi prior to filming. It was filmed in Illinois instead.

The AFI ranked the film as the 75th greatest movie of all time and Poitier often called it his favorite that he ever made.

Powerful from its opening scene to it’s perfect ending, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is great filmmaking and gets an A+ landing in my all time Top 100.

“They call me MISTER Tibbs!” is one of the most iconic lines in film history and as great today as it was in 1967.

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