For those of you who are, how shall I say it, younger than I, you might associate this movie with the TV series of the same name. Rest assured, besides the same title, the only thing that series has in common with the motion picture is that they were both filmed on planet Earth. Maybe.
In the Heat of the Night tells the story of a murder of a prominent white businessman in a small Mississippi town. A black homicide detective (Sydney Poitier) from Philadelphia waiting for a train connection is assumed to be guilty by the bigoted police, for no other reason than he is a stranger in town, he is black, and he has money in his wallet. Against his first instincts, he is coerced to stay and help the local police solve the murder.
The essence of a hot Mississippi town is perfectly captured on film, and that is amazing when you find out that it was filmed in Illinois in Autumn. Ironically, Sydney Poitier insisted the production be filmed in the north, due to concerns of how black actors were treated in the south.
While many elements combine to make this one of The Best Movies Ever Made, it is truly owned by Rod Steiger, portraying the bigoted sheriff Gillespie. The best way to appreciate Rod Steiger’s performance in this movie go to YouTube, and find his acceptance speech for the year he won an Oscar for this same movie. There you see an intelligent, eloquent New Yorker, in a tuxedo delivering an intelligent and eloquent speech. Now watch In the Heat of the Night, and you wonder if the Oscar speech was the performance, and his true persona is that of a Deep South sheriff.
The lines he speaks can seem ridiculous on paper, but his delivery makes them grab your head and pull you closer to the screen in anticipation of his next lines. This is the only other performance caught on film that would deserve to be in the same category as Russell Crowe’s performance in A Beautiful Mind (2001). Stop trying to think of any other performances in the same league. There are none. Period.
So the next time you’re channel surfing and see Archie Bunker with a southern accent, quickly cover your eyes, start singing the theme song from The Brady Bunch until you can change the channel. Then watch In the Heat of the Night, and marvel.