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‘In the Heat of the Night’ Turns 50: Why This Police Classic Still Thrills — TCM Fest

The landmark racial mystery drama, which opens the TCM Festival on Thursday, beat "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde" for Best Picture in 1968.

“In the Heat of the Night”

Ever wonder why “In the Heat of the Night” beat “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” for Best Picture Oscar in 1968? Well, as Bobby Kennedy told director Norman Jewison when he presented the movie with the New York Film Critics Award, “Norman, timing is everything.”

It’s hard to believe that the movie came out 50 years ago. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger lit up the screen in the racially-charged murder mystery that not only captured the Civil Rights zeitgeist but also delivered a damn good drama. On April 6, the TCM Classic Film Festival celebrates that anniversary with a gala opening night screening at the Chinese Theatre IMAX on Hollywood Boulevard, attended by Jewison, Poitier, producer Walter Mirisch, Lee Grant, and composer Quincy Jones.

Considered an underdog that year, “Heat” took home five Oscars, including Best Actor for Steiger, Stirling Siliphant’s Best Adapted Screenplay, Hal Ashby’s Editing, and Sound Mixing. Unlike the more subversive nominees from Mike Nichols (who won Best Director for “The Graduate”) and Arthur Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde”), Jewison’s “Heat” took a more mainstream cinematic approach to the turbulent ’60s with a movie that offered hope and reconciliation. As James Baldwin pointed out in “I Am Not Your Negro,” the film soothed filmgoers and Academy members alike 50 years ago. The movie remains as resonant as ever in today’s divisive America.

Poitier plays a tough fish out of water Philadelphia cop trapped in Mississippi as the prime suspect in the murder of an industrialist, but winds up helping redneck sheriff Rod Steiger solve the crime. Underneath, it’s a buddy dramedy and they learn to accept the humanity in one another and the necessity of uniting the country.

“It’s an unusual picture in a way: There’s no love story, but that [bonding] between Sidney and Rod is what makes it work so well after all these years,” said Mirisch, who won back-to-back Best Picture Oscars for “The Apartment” (1960) and “West Side Story” (1961), two other incisive movies about the elusive American Dream. “There’s truth in all these situations and it’s as true today as when it was made. And the problem is still with us.”

“In the Heat of the Night”

Mirisch jumped at the opportunity of making “Night” (based on a 1965 novel by John Ball) with the very hot Poitier, who broke the color barrier by winning the Best Actor Oscar the previous year for “Lilies of the Field.” He developed the movie with Poitier and Siliphant (“The Slender Thread” starred Poitier), making sure it was a solid mystery and not a racial polemic.

Mirisch then hired up and coming Canadian director Jewison straight off their Cold War satire, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966). “I had no idea how important a picture it was,” Jewison told IndieWire. “Of course, I was aware of what was going on in the country, but I just wanted it to be believable or it would fall flat.”

And Jewison couldn’t have done it without cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who won the Oscar in ’66 for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) or editor Ashby. Wexler provided a verite vibe and Ashby turned in a tight 110-minute movie that should serve as a model for editors today.

The trick, though, in getting United Artists to greenlight “Heat,” was convincing the studio that if it were made for $2 million, it could turn a profit even if it was boycotted in the South (which did not happen).

And the key was landing Steiger as the sheriff, after George C. Scott bowed out because of another commitment. Steiger made the role iconic with great charisma and wit — and became the wild card.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, Sidney Poitier, Lee Grant, Rod Steiger, 1967

“In the Heat of the Night”

Courtesy Everett Collection

“I think we owe the humor largely to him,” said Mirisch. “Norman appreciated what Rod was bringing to the picture and encouraged it and went with it. From chewing the gum [to reveal his inner thought process] to his reactions to various things.

“For example, the famous slaps in the face that take place in the greenhouse [of the town patriarch]. The tension is very high and Larry Gates says to Steiger, ‘What are you gonna do?’ And Rod looks at him quizzically and says, ‘I don’t know.’ And the theaters burst out into laughter. And the relief of that tension was just what it needed.”

Ah, yes, the famous slap. This marked the first time an African American had ever slapped a white man on screen before, which Poitier insisted on. Poitier’s first caveat, however, was that he was not going to shoot in the Deep South, so “Heat” was made in Sparta, Illinois. That is, except for the scenes with Gates, which were shot in Tennessee for three days because Jewison wanted the authentic look of cotton fields and a plantation house.

Jewison’s favorite moment — a conversation between Poitier and Steiger at the sheriff’s home — was crucially altered when a rainstorm interrupted the shooting. The director and stars huddled in a car and improvised an exchange about loneliness and then shot it after the storm lifted.

“I don’t think it had the same intimacy on the page,” Jewison said. “They worked well together: Sidney brought dignity and Rod used the Method to his advantage.”

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