Written by Stirling Silliphant and John Ball
Directed by Norman Jewison
It’s hard to believe that fifty years ago conditions like these still existed in the United States. Although racism still exists in many forms (and seems to have gotten worse over the last four years), seeing what is immediately assumed about a black stranger in a town’s train station in the wee hours of the morning is quite enlightening.
In Sparta, Mississippi a man is found murdered. When Virgil Tibbs , a black man who is waiting for a train, is picked up at the train station for the crime, it turns out he is a highly regarded homicide detective in Philadelphia. This is only found out after he has been called “boy” a few dozen times and otherwise subject to other forms of prejudice.
Sidney Poitier portrays Tibbs, who’s asked by the local Police Chief, Bill Gillespie, to help them out with the murder investigation – once Gillespie has verified his background, that is. The character of Tibbs could easily have been written in such a way that Tibbs is above reproach. Too often in movies, we see a character like this who’s written in such a way that it feels like the audience is being forced to like him or root for him. That is not the case in this film, however. Poitier’s Tibbs conducts himself during the investigation as if he is looking down at the townsfolk the entire time.
He is also driven by a prejudice of his own by wanting to take down the wealthiest man in town, Endicott, who has seemingly made his fortune on the backs of local poor blacks. He delights in standing in Endicott’s greenhouse and taking him up on the offer of lemonade. What is shocking here is that Endicott doesn’t seem to blink when that happens, although he does still feel himself superior to the black officer to slap him when Tibbs accuses Endicott of the murder.
Rod Steiger as Gillespie comes close to being a one-dimensional character at times. He’s a tough-talking uneducated man who probably got where he is by being a “good ol’ boy”. He cracks and chews gum constantly in an effort to look tougher, lending even more to the stereotype, but Gillespie grows during the course of this movie. Grudgingly, he must admit that the murder investigation has him in over his head and must look for help elsewhere. Having Tibbs around to help is actually quite fortunate, although Gillespie can’t see it that way. It takes the prompting of the murdered man’s widow – a rich factory owner from “up north” – to force him into accepting the help he so desperately needs.
The murder investigation is really secondary to the story as the two lead characters try to solve it; sometimes at odds, sometimes together. Gillespie is never really going to be a buddy with Tibbs, but through the course of the film he grows to have respect for the man and see beyond the prejudice he’s been brought up with; beyond the color of his skin. When the scene with Endicott occurs, Gillespie could have easily arrested Tibbs or had him “disappear”. That doesn’t happen, and Gillespie is as mystified as anyone as to why he doesn’t do it.
Tibbs’ qualifications put him head and shoulders above Gillespie, and he hates to admit it. There were times as the murder investigation took twists and turns that I thought Tibbs delighted in pointing out to Gillespie that he had the wrong man under arrest (twice) for the crime. Again, it’s Tibbs’ own prejudice against the small-minded, small town folk that really drives him to stay and solve the crime, not any sense of justice.
In a sign of the times, Steiger was nominated (and won) an Academy Award for his performance, while Poitier didn’t receive a nomination. I think Poitier gave the better performance of the two. Still, this film was ground-breaking for it’s time and also took home the Best Picture Oscar, and deservedly so.
The DVD featured audio commentary with Director Norman Jewison, Director of Photography Haskell Wexler, Rod Steiger and Lee Grant. Sounds like each one was done separately then mixed together rather than having them all in a room together talking about the film. There’s a lot of good information there, but I think the commentary would have had a better feel to it if they were all together talking about the film.
As far as the transfer goes, it’s not bad for such an old film. In the night scenes, the lights had lots of halos around them. The sound varies and I had to adjust the volume quite a bit. Sometimes it was too low to hear conversation while in other scenes it seemed to blast at me. There was also a very grainy trailer for the film, but it gave the feeling of sitting in the theater watching it quite well.
This film is a classic, and although it may be dated in it’s racial overtones, it’s an important film for people to see to understand how deep the racism ran – and sometimes does still run – in this country.