Note: This is #46 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
If you’re looking for a good example of a film that represents the cultural zeitgeist (double word score!) of its era, In the Heat of the Night would be a good candidate. It tells the story of Black Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who is at first accused murder while passing through a small Mississippi town, then grudgingly recruited by the bigoted local police force to help solve the crime. Along the way, Tibbs –who has a stick up his own bum– has to learn to work with sour and semi-bigoted Police Chief Bill Gillespi (Rod Steiger) while overcoming prejudices of his own.
The movie works well enough as your basic murder mystery, with your list of suspects, motives, forensics technobabble, and detective work. But marbled through all this are unmistakable messages about Black/White relations and bigotry on both sides of the race card. Gillespi and the other police officers are suspicious of Tibbs, who seems disdainful, cold, and uppity. Tibbs, for his part, has a huge chip on his shoulder (albeit for understandable reasons), and does things like let his own preconceptions lead him to mistakenly suspect the town’s biggest racist of the crime. What I like is that it’s largely a movie without clear-cut villains. Well, except the obligatory lynch mob of rednecks wielding baseball bats. They’re clearly villains. And the guy who actually committed the murder that touched this whole thing off. I guess he’s pretty clearly a villain, too. Okay, so so maybe it’s more that it’s a movie without clear-cut heroes. Except that’s not quite it either. Well, you know what I mean. All the heroes are flawed. Or something.