Fitting it is for Ray Charles to treat audiences with a rendition of the song written for In the Heat of the Night. His crooning and pained lyrical wit give a flash of things to come. It is a song of isolation. “I’m-a-feelin’ motherless somehow” hitting not just the key notes of Charles’ craft, but of what director Norman Jewison wishes to display. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is the African American in charge of investigating a murder. His isolation comes from the people he has to interact with, who do not take kindly to his race nor his esteemed position. They are the close-knit, backwater community audiences have come to feel disdain for. Had they been closer to a lake, they would be reminiscent of the closed-circuit families found in Deliverance.
We as an audience are left in the dark as much as these sleepy townsfolk and lonely detective are. Here is a murder that we stumble upon, the silent horror on the face of the patrol officer that discovers the dead man cut by a flash of bright light. It is the camera of a photographer capturing the dead-eyed, cold body of business magnate Phillip Colbert. Extreme close-ups of his face, edited hand in hand with the bulb flash of a young photographer. “Is this the first time you’ve photographed a homicide?” asks Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Judging from the sleepy town mood, it most likely is. More to the point, it is why they happen across and subsequently draft in a man with experience, Tibbs. A strong leading performance from the no-nonsense Poitier. He riffs on the racial tensions that are key to making his murder investigation harder than it should be.
It is the tension found between Gillespie and Tibbs that spurs the film on. There is no chemistry between the two, but therein lies the point. They are not cut from the same cloth, but their lifestyles have led to the same form of employment. Tibbs is referred to as “boy” rather than “officer” or even by his name. Not just by those he finds himself working with, but by the townsfolk who are icy in their response to his simple questions. Disdain they may feel for the youths that do not respect the law, they themselves fall folly. One refuses to give evidence in front of Tibbs, another forgets his place and role, subsequently hitting the hardworking officer on the mouth. He gets as much as he gives.
A dynamic of power is presented, and the slow shift toward Tibbs and away from Gillespie is beautifully managed. It is not a shift of control, but one of respect between two men. Jewison presents it well in the actions and inactions of both men, who share a common goal but different outlooks.
Everyone but Gillespie from time to time show nothing but despair and disgust for Tibbs. Even when he is on the money, correct or helping officers with their case. They are still quick to mock or take note of his findings and claim them as their own. It is how he ends up in the jail cell with a potential murderer, and why Gillespie offers a hand of apology with the papers to file a false arrest report. Police corruption and race are at the core of In the Heat of the Night. Gillespie frames anyone and everyone for the crime. Perhaps it is an attempt at getting Tibbs out of his hair, or maybe the heat is playing tricks on his mind. Either way, Levinson captures a great period of changing tides here, and strong performances keep the major themes together well enough.