In the Heat of the Night (film)

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In the Heat of the Night
In the Heat of the Night (film).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Norman Jewison
Produced by Walter Mirisch
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant
Based on In the Heat of the Night 
by John Ball
Starring Sidney Poitier
Rod Steiger
Warren Oates
Lee Grant
Music by Quincy Jones
Cinematography Haskell Wexler, ASC
Edited by Hal Ashby
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • August 2, 1967 (1967-08-02)
Running time
109 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2 million[2]
Box office $24,379,978[3]

In the Heat of the Night is a 1967 American mystery drama film directed by Norman Jewison. It is based on John Ball's 1965 novel of the same name 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. It stars Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, and Warren Oates, and was produced by Walter Mirisch. The screenplay was by Stirling Silliphant.

The film won five Academy Awards, including the 1967 award for Best Picture.

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), 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.


Philip Colbert, a wealthy entrepreneur and industrialist from Chicago who is planning to build a factory for his company in Sparta, Mississippi, is found murdered. White Police Chief Bill Gillespie seeking quick resolution to the mystery orders his officers to thoroughly search the city’s nearly deserted streets and closed businesses for anyone who might have seen or heard something or who is suspiciously outside in the middle of the night, in a small town where everyone goes to bed at sunset. This search, by Officer Sam Wood, discovers an African-American northerner Virgil Tibbs in the waiting room of the Sparta train station. The waiting room is open but unstaffed as the station is closed at that hour. Tibbs is only passing through town, waiting to complete his change in trains (by way of an unfamiliar but valid connection) and is bound for Memphis, Tennessee. He's picked up at the train station and has a substantial amount of cash in his wallet. Gillespie, prejudiced against blacks, jumps to the conclusion that he has his culprit but is embarrassed to learn that Tibbs is an experienced police officer from Philadelphia, and a recognized homicide detective of some renown who is simply passing through Sparta, literally changing trains, after visiting his mother. After the racist treatment that 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 offer his expertise. Leslie Colbert, the victim's widow, already frustrated by the ineptitude of the local police is impressed by Tibbs' expertise when he clears another wrongly accused suspect whom Gillespie has arrested on circumstantial evidence. She threatens to stop construction on the much needed factory unless Tibbs 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 racist who publicly opposed the new factory, as the early clues point to Colbert's visit to Endicott's plantation earlier that evening. When Tibbs 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, but Tibbs refuses to leave until he has solved the case.

Tibbs asks Officer Wood, the officer who discovered the body, to retrace his movements at the same time when he was on roving patrol in Sparta on the night of the murder. Tibbs and Gillespie accompany Wood on his patrol route, stopping at a diner (where Wood took his mid-shift break). The counterman, Ralph Henshaw, refuses to serve Tibbs. Henshaw also observes Gillespie and Tibbs investigating the murder. After they leave the diner, still retracing Wood's movements on the night of the murder, Tibbs observes that Wood is deliberately changing his patrol route to bypass the house where 16 year-old Delores Purdy parades around in the nude at night, to taunt the suitor (Officer Wood) that she's led on. Tibbs knows all of this because of his talking with a cellmate when briefly under arrest in Gillespie's jail. Gillespie starts suspecting Wood of the crime because of his unexplained attempt to hide the truth of his whereabouts when on patrol. Tibbs later tells Gillespie he knows why Sam has changed his route but will not disclose the reason to Gillespie.

However, when Gillespie discovers that Wood made a sizable deposit into his bank account the day after the murder (which Wood claims is gambling winnings) and Lloyd Purdy, a local, files charges against Wood for getting his 16-year-old sister Delores pregnant, Gillespie arrests Wood 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 Wood, and he gathers a mob to get his revenge on Tibbs.

Tibbs is able to clear Wood in two ways. First, he found Colbert's blood in the back seat of his own car. This confirmed what Tibbs had always suspected from his first examination of Colbert's body. Colbert was killed earlier than initially thought, before Officer Wood began his roving patrol. Once killed, Colbert's body was placed in the back seat of his car and driven from where the killing took place to where the body was dropped. Therefore, Sam Wood "... couldn't have driven two cars ..." at the same time, his police patrol car and the victim's car. Tibbs' roving search of Sparta finds the original murder scene where the probable murder weapon (a wooden surveying stake, used as a club) is of the same type of wood as the splinters which were found embedded in Colbert's scalp and skull. Tibbs also admits that he knew immediately that Wood changed his route not to hide the fact that he was a murderer but that he was a "peeping Tom" and declined to publicly reveal this in order to spare Wood the embarrassment.

When Lloyd Purdy files charges against Wood for statutory rape of his 16 year-old baby-sister Tibbs realizes Delores Purdy (or Delores and her accomplice) have decided to falsely provide Officer Wood with a motive for murdering Philip Colbert for money; that the money was needed so that Wood could pay for Delores to get an abortion. But Tibbs knows that while that motive of murder for money might be true, it wasn't because Sam Wood got Delores Purdy pregnant. Someone else got her pregnant and that someone else, knowing that Wood was under suspicion for Colbert's death, might have tried to frame Wood for the crime. So Tibbs tracks down a local high priced back-room abortionist who reveals that someone has paid well for Delores to have an abortion. When Delores arrives, Tibbs pursues her outside where he is confronted by the murderer, 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 Henshaw, not Wood, who got Delores pregnant, and that Henshaw has given his little sister an unheard of sum of money for the abortion. When Purdy sees the hundreds of dollars in Delores' purse, he knows its Ralph Henshaw who's turned his little sister into a "field slut". Henshaw shoots Purdy dead before being disarmed by Tibbs. Henshaw is arrested and confesses to the murder of Colbert.

Henshaw tells Gillespie that he left his trailer on foot, planning to walk to Lloyd Purdy's house to see Delores on the way to work. Lloyd Purdy worked nights and would not be coming home unexpectedly. When he left the Purdy home, Henshaw did so early enough so that he could walk to the roadside diner and arrive in time to relieve the evening counter-man and begin the midnight shift. Philip Colbert was driving back to his hotel from his meeting with Endicott when he saw Henshaw walking along the road. As an out-of-town businessman who had used the diner many times and who knew the workers there, he picked up Henshaw with the intent of dropping him off at the diner, thus saving him the time and fatigue of walking.

As he would arrive at work early, and was in no hurry to do so, Henshaw readily agreed to let Colbert show him the site of the new factory he was having built. At the construction site Henshaw 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, regarded by a now respectful Gillespie.



The film contains the famous scene in which Tibbs and Gillespie visit the home of Eric Endicott to question him, following Tibbs' 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 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." However, Poitier's version of the story is contradicted by Mark Harris in his book, Pictures at a Revolution. Harris states that copies of the original draft of the screenplay that he obtained clearly contain the scene as filmed, which is backed up by Jewison and Silliphant.

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 to 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.[4]


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 San Francisco pre-screening, Jewison was concerned when the young audience was laughing at 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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".

With the release of the film in the U.S. in August, Poitier was starring in two movies simultaneously at the box office as To Sir, with Love had been released the previous June.

The film, as of January 2014, holds a 94% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, out of 35 reviews.[9]

Home media[edit]

In the Heat of the Night was first released on DVD in 2001. In 2010, the film was digitized in High Definition (1080i) and broadcast on MGM HD.

Other appearances[edit]

In episode 6 of Doctor Who's "Web of Fear", a movie poster is shown in the background for the film, with the movie title replaced with the words 'Block-Busters', presumably for copyright reasons.


In the Heat of the Night was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning five. They are as follows:[10]

Academy Award wins
Academy Award nominations
Other awards

American Film Institute recognition

Other nominations


  1. ^ "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (A)". British Board of Film Classification. July 17, 1967. Retrieved November 13, 2014. 
  2. ^ Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry, Uni of Wisconsin Press, 1987 p 187
  3. ^ "In the Heat of the Night, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved March 8, 2012. 
  4. ^ Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Films and the Birth of a New Hollywood. Penguin Press, 2008, p. 221.
  5. ^ Harris, pp. 288–90.
  6. ^ Harris, p. 336.
  7. ^ Harris, pp. 335–6
  8. ^ Later, Poitier did the sequels They Call Me MISTER Tibbs and The Organization, but both films failed at the box office.Variety review, 1967
  9. ^ "In the Heat of the Night, Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 9, 2012. 
  10. ^ "The 40th Academy Awards (1968) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-25. 
  • DuBose, James (2008). Searching for Sparta: A 40-year Retrospective on the Movie In the Heat of the Night (2nd ed.). 

External links[edit]