In the Heat of the Night (film)

In the Heat of the Night (film) Information

In the Heat of the Night is a 1967 mystery film based on the John Ball novel of the same name published in 1965, which tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a racist small town in Mississippi. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It stars Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, and Warren Oates, and was directed by Norman Jewison.

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, an unincorporated community), 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.


Mr. Colbert, a wealthy man from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in Sparta, Mississippi, is found murdered. White police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) comes under pressure to quickly find his killer. African-American northerner Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), passing through, is picked up at the train station between trains with a substantial amount of cash in his wallet. Gillespie, prejudiced against blacks, jumps to the conclusion he has his culprit but is embarrassed to learn that Tibbs is an experienced Philadelphia homicide detective who is simply passing through town after visiting his mother. After the racist treatment 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. 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 Gillespie has arrested on circumstantial evidence. She threatens to stop construction on the much needed factory unless he 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, a racialist who publicly opposed the new factory. When he attempts to interrogate Endicott about Colbert, Endicott slaps him in the face. 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. Tibbs refuses to leave until he has solved the case.

Tibbs asks Sam Wood, the officer who discovered the body, to retrace his steps the night of the murder. He and Gillespie accompany Sam on his patrol route, stopping at a diner where the counterman, Ralph Henshaw, refuses to serve Tibbs. When Tibbs notices that Sam has deliberately changed his route, Gillespie begins to suspect Sam 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 Sam made a sizable deposit into his bank account the day after the murder (which Sam claims is gambling winnings) and Lloyd Purdy, a local, files charges against Sam for getting his 16-year-old sister Delores pregnant, Gillespie arrests Sam 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 Sam, and he gathers a mob to get his revenge on Tibbs.

Tibbs is able to clear Sam by finding the original murder scene and pointing out that Sam would not have been able to drive two cars at the same time to dump the body and the victim's car while continuing on his patrol. Tibbs also admits that he knew immediately that Sam changed his route not to hide the fact that he was a murderer but a peeping Tom and declined to publicly reveal this in order to spare Sam embarrassment.

Acting on a hunch, Tibbs tracks down the local back-room abortionist, who reveals that someone has paid for Delores Purdy to have an abortion. When Delores arrives, Tibbs pursues her outside, where he is confronted by the murderer, the diner counterman Ralph Henshaw. Purdy's mob tracks down Tibbs at this moment, and he is being held at gunpoint when he proves to Purdy that it was Ralph, not Sam, who got Delores pregnant. Purdy attacks Ralph, who kills Purdy in self-defense. Ralph is arrested and confesses to the murder of Colbert. He had attempted to rob Colbert to gain money to pay for Delores's abortion but accidentally killed him.

His job done, Tibbs finally boards the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio train out of town, seen off by a more respectful Gillespie.


  • Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs
  • Rod Steiger as Police Chief Bill Gillespie
  • Warren Oates as Sergeant (Patrolman) Sam Wood
  • Lee Grant as Mrs. Leslie Colbert
  • Larry Gates as Eric Endicott
  • James Patterson as Lloyd Purdy (Delores's brother)
  • William Schallert as Mayor Webb Schubert
  • Beah Richards as Mama Caleba (Mrs. Bellamy)
  • Peter Whitney as CPL. George Courtney
  • Kermit Murdock as H.E. Henderson (banker)
  • Larry D. Mann as Watkins
  • Quentin Dean as Delores Purdy
  • Anthony James as Ralph Henshaw (diner counterman)
  • Arthur Malet as Ted Ulam (mortician)
  • Scott Wilson as Harvey Oberst (murder suspect)
  • Matt Clark as Packy Harrison
  • Eldon Quick as Charlie Hawthorne (photographer)
  • Jester Hairston as Henry (Endicott's butler)


The film contains the famous scene in which Tibbs and Gillespie visit the home of Eric Endicott to question him, following Tibbs's 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 Sidney 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. I stayed away from films that didn't speak well of my values. I could only say yes to films if I passed it by my dad. I passed it by my father because I did not want ever to make a film that would not reflect positively on my father's life."

However, Poitier's version of the story seems to be a bit of publicity fiction and is contradicted by Mark Harris in his meticulously researched book, Pictures at a Revolution. In the book Harris states that Stirling Silliphant's original draft contained both slaps, which is backed up by Jewison and Silliphant, and Harris states that copies of the original draft he obtained clearly contain the scene.

The film contains two classic lines read by Poitier. When Gillespie sarcastically asks Tibbs what they call him in Philadelphia, he snaps, "They call me Mister Tibbs." Later, having deduced that the murderer is diner counterman Ralph Henshaw (introduced killing flies in the first scene of the film) and not police officer Sam Wood, Tibbs says, "Sam couldn't have driven two cars." At the very end of the film, as Poitier is boarding a train to leave the town, the last lines are uttered by Steiger and sum the growth of their relationship, yet maintain the standard of the South. He said, "Virgil? You take care now, y'hear," words to give support to the budding civil rights movement, exemplifying that, with effort, racial divisions are capable of being overcome.

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 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.


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. During filming Poitier also contributed his efforts to Civil Rights functions devised by Dr. Martin Luther King.

In a sneak preview in San Francisco, Norman Jewison was concerned when the young audience was laughing with 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. 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. 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.

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. AD Murphy of Variety magazine felt it was a good, but uneven film. Another driving force was Canadian director Norman 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".

The film, as of March, 2012, holds a 96% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, out of 28 reviews.

Release on DVD & HD

  • In 2001 it was released on DVD.
  • In 2010 it was digitized in High Definition (1080i) and broadcast on MGM HD.

Awards and honors

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

Academy Award wins

  • Academy Award for Best Picture
  • Academy Award for Best Actor " Rod Steiger
  • Academy Award for Film Editing " Hal Ashby
  • Academy Award for Best Sound " Samuel Goldwyn Studios
  • Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay " Stirling Silliphant

Academy Award nominations

  • Academy Award for Directing - Norman Jewison
  • Academy Award for Sound Editing - James Richard
Other wins and nominations are:

Other awards

  • Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama - Rod Steiger
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay - Stirling Silliphant
  • BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor - Rod Steiger
  • BAFTA UN Award - Norman Jewison
  • Edgar Award - Best Motion Picture Screenplay - Stirling Silliphant (Ball's book also received an Edgar, for Best First Novel)
  • New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Picture
  • 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".
American Film Institute recognition

  • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - #75
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains - #19 (Hero)
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
    • "They call me Mister Tibbs!" - #16

Other nominations

  • BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor - Sidney Poitier
  • BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source - Norman Jewison
  • Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures - Norman Jewison
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Director - Norman Jewison
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama - Sidney Poitier
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Lee Grant
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Quentin Dean
  • Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media - Quincy Jones
  • Writers Guild of America for Best Written American Drama - Stirling Silliphant

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