An excellent Sidney Poitier performance, and an outstanding one by Rod Steiger, overcome some noteworthy flaws to make “In The Heat of the Night” an absorbing contemporary murder drama, set in the deep, red-necked South. Most production elements are well coordinated by producer Walter Mirisch, and enhanced by an excellent cast. Norman Jewison directed, sometimes in pretentious fashion, an uneven script. Nevertheless, hot b.o. prospects are likely from United Artists release in general situations.
Novelist John Ball has written three books about a Negro gumshoe named Virgil Tibbs, “Heat”‘ being the first. Stirling Silliphant has adapted it into an erratic screenplay which indulges in heavy-handed, sometimes needless plot diversion, uncertain character development, and a rapid fire denouement. As a matter of fact, suddenness of climax suggests that the creative team went dry. Pic clearly is a triumph over some of its basic parts.
Intriguing plot basis has Poitier as the detective, accidentally on a visit to his Mississippi hometown where a prominent industrialist is found murdered. Arrested initially — and ironically — on the assumption that a Negro, out late at night must have done the deed, Poitier later is thrust, by his boss in Philadelphia, his own conscience, and a temporary anti-white emotional outburst, into uneasy collaboration with local sheriff Steiger.
Steiger’s transformation from a diehard Dixie bigot to a man who learns to respect Poitier stands out in smooth comparison to the wandering solution of the murder. En route, assorted characters include policeman Warren Oates, sexpot Quentin Dean and her brother, James Peterson, Lee Grant, as the murdered man’s widow, unreconstructed manor lord Larry Gates, glib mayor William Schallert, town abolitionist Beah Richards, sleazy greasy-spoon clerk Anthony James, and petty criminal Scott Wilson.
Script emphasis on in early reels telegraphs something, and indeed that occurs. But the explanation of the murder takes only several seconds and many audiences will have to discuss the matter before reaching agreement; even a fast synopsis reading leaves some questions. Jewison’s direction of his cast is excellent, particularly the relationship between the two above-title stars, although some dialect is obscure.
Exactly why Gates’ scene is there is unclear — perhaps the face-slapping bit with Poitier was considered daring, although incorporation could have been smoother. Exactly why Poitier seeks out Miss Richards — for that matter, the details of his entrée there — are unclear. These flaws, and others to follow, are noteworthy in view of their substantial, obvious presence.
Miss Dean, Patterson, Wilson and James are “introduced” herein, and each has a distinct potential. Oates and Miss Grant, top-featured, are just right, and rest of cast supports in solid fashion.
Jewison’s presumed influence on final editing is not up to his dramatic direction. In an early scene, for example, Wilson is pursued by hounds to a large bridge, over which lies another state — and freedom. What could have been a compelling and ironic frustration becomes a tedious intercutting of a long zoom, then Steiger sitting in a patrol car, waiting for his prey, Steiger driving at speeds which process work indicates must be about 80 m.p.h., then Wilson shuffling along with the car behind, and finally a long-shot which ends it all. Scene does not play; it fizzles out completely.
Then, too, the subjective camera, used several times, gets a little old. Wilson’s flight through underbush is overemphasized by dizzying shots; frames, not feet, of film can convey the desired impression. Also a peeping-tom view of some hoods getting into a car for the climactic confrontation is needlessly obscured by foliage — and the obscured characters only confuse who’s who.
On the peeping tom bit, Oates’ voyeuristic o.o. of Miss Dean, a nubile, fullbreasted nifty to be sure, is followed by a long-held shot for audience voyeurs; again, too much of a good thing – cinematically, that is. Perhaps there is no door-screen, or convenient strut in the foreign version.
Haskell Wexler’s DeLuxe lensing captures the desired drabness of the locale for mood-enhancement, but in several scenes it intrudes. Must auto departures so regularly start from a tail light? Only a nearby tire thief would see it that way. Difference, for its own sake, is pretension.
An excellent score has been provided by Quincy Jones whose title tune is sung by Ray Charles to good effect. Hal Ashby, also billed as assistant to the producer, executed editing to 109 minutes, overall very good with exceptions as noted. Sound recording is excellent, as are other production credits. Out-of-focus title effects are credited to Murray Naidich, who did a firstrate job; UA might include an alerting note to boothmen however, to ensure a smooth opening.
Jewison had, after switch from TV, directed five programmers before The Mirisch Corp. sponsored his “The Russians are Coming the Russings Are Coming,” which landed him firmly on the film map, and extended his ties with Mirisch for five more pix, including “Heat.”