What kind of a place is this?
All you need to know about Sparta, Mississippi is Mayor Schubert (William Schallert) reminding his police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) that he wasn’t hired for his “homicide expertise.” No, in a town like this, overseen with an iron grip by the owner of a cotton plantation (Larry Gates‘ Eric Endicott), loyalty means a lot more than the ability to do your job well. So, why not let the Black detective from Philadelphia who’s just passing through stay awhile and help solve a murder that the locals are ill-equipped to do on their own? Why not let Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) work his magic and either take the credit or hang the blame when he’s done? What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll somehow recover their missing humanity?
I think the best part of Norman Jewison‘s In the Heat of the Night (adapted by Stirling Silliphant from John Ball‘s novel) is that there’s no fear of that. No one in Sparta is suddenly going to invite Jess the mechanic over for dinner. Just because a guy like Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson) will soften his racism on behalf of owing a favor or Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) will unwittingly let every white man in the precinct know what it means to be called “boy” after Gillespie lobs it his way doesn’t mean feeling indebted or shame is synonymous with growth. Respect for a job well done isn’t equality either. And trying to prevent Tibbs from getting murdered while in town doesn’t mean Gillespie values his life.
This central relationship is transactional from start to finish. Tibbs gets to rub Gillespie’s nose in it if he snags the murderer (despite being arrested as the crime’s first suspect simply because he dared to sit quietly at the train station with a wallet full of cash) and Gillespie gets to lord his authority over Tibbs for letting him while also saving his job (since Lee Grant‘s Mrs. Colbert, the widow of the deceased and last person standing between Sparta getting the yet-to-be-built factory that may have gotten him killed, knows the chief would have railroaded the first person he could to mark the case closed). It’s about politics rather than justice and personal satisfaction rather than duty. Who’s more important? Endicott or Colbert? Can Gillespie placate both?
It’s a taut police procedural with multiple twists and turns revealing numerous red herrings until the answer finally comes into focus. Some of Tibbs’ leaps might prove convenient on the surface, but none of what happens is out of character for a repressed town full of bigots and opportunists. That it all hinges on its murdered man being wealthy and from Chicago (allowing Mrs. Colbert to not blink when the Black man in the room proves to be the only competent one amongst those trying to find the killer) actually helps matters because it reminds us just how backwards and corrupt Sparta ultimately is. Outsiders are therefore Gillespie’s bane and his salvation. He knows he can’t do this alone. At least not right. And his community needs Colbert.
There’s cause for Steiger being singled out above Poitier as a result (even if race surely played a role in the former being nominated and the latter not regardless of whether the win was earned). Tibbs is a man of conviction who is willing to put himself in danger to see this case to its end. Watching him instantly swing back at Endicott after getting smacked in the face tells you everything about what kind of man he is and why we as an audience have his back (it’s absolutely wild that the scene original had him holding back the urge before telling Endicott’s servant to pray instead). Gillespie, on the other hand, is caught in an impossible situation that’s also illustrated by the same scene.
Gillespie is supposed to kill Tibbs for that slap. Not doing so puts his own life at risk while also forfeiting his career since his position in this southern environment demands loyalty to the establishment rather than the law. And Gillespie would love nothing more than to whip Tibbs—he even says as much. Refusing to play that role is thus not out of compassion for him as a man, but belief in the job itself. Dialogue about Tibbs making more money despite having a lower rank brings so much more to this script than easy banter. There’s a mixture of jealousy and honor that both drives Gillespie forward and holds him back. He eventually wants to catch this murderer to prove to Tibbs that he can.
It’s a subtle yet crucial shift in motivation that also forces Gillespie to save Tibbs in process. He can’t prove himself if the only person who can give that approval is dead. So, he makes enemies. He puts a target on his back. He stumbles backwards into being Tibbs’ champion and finds out how quickly the tables can turn as a result. That doesn’t exonerate his own racism. It doesn’t even make him a likeable character. But it does lend an authenticity to the situation that more than compensates for the contrived narrative developments pushing them towards the culprit hiding in the background. Because Gillespie and Tibbs are never on the right track. They’re constantly letting their own prejudices guide them until the guilty party inevitably hangs himself.
How great is that? These two men are allowed to be human and own their emotions whether warranted (Tibbs’ righteous anger) or not (Gillespie’s hate). It leads to some fantastic interactions expertly written with a mix of comedy and social commentary. And so many of those exchanges see attitudes flipping on a dime due to Tibbs believing he can finally let his guard down or Gillespie realizing there’s no way around his latest instance of being proven wrong. It happens with bit parts too like officers mocking and glaring at Tibbs right up until the point where Tibbs becomes the only person able to save one of their own from a misguided accusation. That’s how you know their bigotry was taught. When backed against a wall, it disappears.
The case gets pushed to the periphery. It’s merely why Tibbs stays. What happens to him and Gillespie as a result is what matters. Theirs is an effective rapport dripping with centuries of abhorrent history—the kind where wry smiles and fiery eyes say more than words ever could. And none of its works if they aren’t cops since there needs to be a common element. Humanity isn’t it and believing it could be only proves that you live in a bigger fiction than the film itself. The job is all that prevents them from putting their hands around each other’s necks (or from sitting back while others do it instead). Tibbs can’t save Sparta. But maybe he can save a few innocent souls from its corrupt machine.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.