Tuesday, April 8, 2014

In the Heat of the Night (film)

In the Heat of the Night is a film adaptation of the book of the same name, written by John Ball. The book was published in 1965 and the film was released just two years later. The film starred Sidney Poitier, who had won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1964, and Rod Steiger, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for this film. In the Heat of the Night won four other Oscars, including Best Picture.

In the opening of the movie, Sam Wood, a police officer in a small town in the South, is patrolling the streets and finds a body. Bill Gillespie, the chief of police, sends Sam to several areas to look for suspicious characters. At the railway station, Sam finds a nicely dressed black man, Virgil Tibbs, waiting for a train, and arrests him because he has a large amount of cash in his wallet. Eventually it is determined that Tibbs is a homicide cop from Philadelphia and he is coerced into helping out with the investigation.


After reading the novel, I watched this movie again. I had not watched it for a couple of years. I like this movie a lot. Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier were both very good in their roles. I felt like it was a good depiction of the racial prejudices in the South at that time. I did not grow up in a small town, nor did I spend much time in small towns, but I did have relatives that lived in Batesville, Mississippi, a town about the same size as the one in this movie (in the 1960's). The town in the movie seemed realistic to me. I cannot speak to the racial attitudes or tensions at that time in a town like that; but I would guess the scenes in the film were realistic, especially as the 1960's was a time of civil rights demonstrations and unrest.

There are differences between the book and the movie, although the basic story and the intent of the book and the film are the same. The book was set in Wells, South Carolina; the movie is set in Sparta, Mississippi. (The movie was actually filmed in Sparta, Illinois.) The detective, Virgil Tibbs, is from Pasadena, California in the book, and has a much milder manner. In the movie he is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is much more confrontational. In the movie, the main characters are the Chief of Police and Tibbs. Gillespie’s role in the book is minor compared to Sam Woods, his deputy. None of these changes made a huge impact on the story, and probably worked better for the film.

The movie showed more thuggish behavior on the part of townspeople; the novel was more about the shabby treatment Tibbs received from the police and the townspeople, solely based on his color. A key scene in the movie is the visit of Tibbs and Gillespie to the Endicott mansion, where Tibbs is treated poorly. In the book, Mr. Endicott is a highly respected member of the community, originally from the North, and the host of the murder victim; he is not racially prejudiced, and requests that Tibbs continue to help with the investigation.

What I liked about the book over the movie was the role of Sam Woods. The book lets us see a slow transformation as Sam begins to see Tibbs as a human being, and an intelligent, worthy colleague. Although the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie develops throughout the movie, I found the changes less convincing. Nevertheless, I enjoyed both versions. My review of the book is here.

There is much more interesting background on this film. See this article on 25 Things You Didn't Know About the Sidney Poitier Classic. It is noted in that article that Poitier did not want to film in Mississippi because he and Harry Belafonte had run into some problems while visiting there.

This book and movie review is submitted for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey.



20 comments:

  1. Nicely reviewed, Tracy. Your observation on the attitude of the police and the people towards Virgil Tibbs in the movie and the book is spot-on. Tibbs appears unfazed throughout the movie but you can see he is affected by their racist behaviour. I can't help thinking the movie ovrshadows the novel for it's the kind of story that is visually more appealing. I watched it before I read the book. I think Sidney Poitier's Oscar for Best Actor, as you mentioned, was the first ever won by an African-American but I could be wrong.

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    1. Yes, when Poitier won his Best Actor Oscar, it was the first for an African-American. Hattie McDaniel had won best Supporting Actress earlier. I also saw the movie before I read the book, and I was surprised that the book was more low key. They both had their good points though.

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  2. I must have watched this film a dozen times over the years - it was one of my mum's favourites and so became one of mine - but I don't think I've ever read the book - certainly not in my memory anyway. You have prompted me to seek it out...thanks

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    1. Bernadette, the book is very good also. A quieter take on the story, but they are both very effective. You get more of a feel of how the white people reacted to Tibbs in the book, in my opinion.

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  3. I'm only skimming this as I have ordered the film up in the past day or so. Never seen it before, so I'm looking forward to it.

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    1. Col, I think you will like the movie. I hope you let us know what you think of it.

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  4. Oh, Tracy, this is an absolutely classic film! I love Poitier in the role of Virgil TIbbs. I didn't know about his reluctance to film in Mississippi, although I am not surprised, knowing that he'd had problems there.

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    1. Margot, it is good to know that racial bias and mistreatment of blacks is less now, but it never completely goes away. Reading books and watching movies about the subject is sobering.

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  5. I've always loved that film, nice to be reminded of it. You did a good review, and I enjoyed reading the article you linked to.

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    1. Thanks, Moira. I knew some of the items in that article already, but others were new to me, and all were interesting.

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  6. I think this is an excellent movie. However, I have not read the book, but it sounds good.
    A reason that Sidney Poitier did not want to film in Mississippi could be that not only he faced problems there, but Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers, had been killed in that state in 1963.

    After he had been shot, he was taken to a hospital in Jackson, Miss., and denied admission because he was African-American. He was finally admitted, but died.

    And in 1964, Civil Rights workers, James Cheney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed in Philadelphia, Miss. They were part of Freedom Summer, and were all young and enthusiastic about helping the Civil Rights Movement.

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    1. Mississippi and Alabama have a lot of things in their history to be ashamed of, Kathy. It is so hard to believe that human beings would deny access to medical care just because of race. I remember being ashamed when George Wallace stood barring the door to the University of Alabama.

      A few years ago, I read the book There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 (by Jason Sokol). It was very painful to read about the south in those years. I did not enjoy reading the book at all, but I read it all the way through. My cousin from Mississippi was quoted in the book; he is a small town newspaper publisher and his father published the paper before him.

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  7. It must have been quite an experience to read the Sokol book. I can't understand the behavior of many white Southerners.

    As a friend has pointed out to me, when we see video footage of white crowds yelling and spitting at African-American children walking into school, some quite young, we wonder how can people feel such hatred. What kind of people are these? Have they no humanity? No human feelings? No empathy? It's very hard to take this.

    I could plug John Grisham's new book "Sycamore Row" here, as he deals with an aspect of Mississippi's awful history.

    I read Sidney Poitier's memoir, and was so shocked at the racism he encountered in the South when he was a young man. I want to read Harry Belafonte's memoir when I can.

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    1. Kathy, thanks for the reminder to read Sycamore Row. I have only read one Grisham but I want to try more.

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  8. Excellent addition to the challenge TracyK - I saw the movie first and then read the book and at the time found it lacking in comparison but you have really made me want to go back and re-read it - thanks.

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    1. Sergio, in some ways I had the same reaction as you to the book. In some ways it was flatter and the characterization of Virgil Tibbs wasn't as developed. But in the end, I appreciated each for their different approaches.

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  9. What a great review idea book vs this great film! I enjoyed your comments and insight while comparing both media. I read "Lawrence in Arabia" and watched the film Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O' Toole afterwards. I understood the politics of the movie only after reading the book.

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    1. I remember your post on Lawrence in Arabia. It made me want to read the book, and I am sure I will do that some day. I definitely want to know more about that time period.

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  10. I love this movie, Tracy. It's one of my all time favorites. I watch it again every couple of years just because it never really grows old for me. I lived through those troubled times though I lived in NYC - everyday it seemed, there was some awful headline in the papers. Ugly photos. Rough times. I think it was Rod Steiger who won the Oscar and Poitier won for Lilies of the Field or something like that. Thanks for writing about this and also for reminding me it's time to line up the movie again.

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    1. It is a wonderful and important and meaningful movie, Yvette. I lived through those times too, but I don't remember a lot about it. I guess I was a teenager and thinking about myself and not realizing the realities all around me.

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