Cast: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Best Film Editing (Hal Ashby), Best Sound (Samuel Goldwyn Studios), Best Adapted Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant)
Oscar Nominations: Best Director (Norman Jewison), Best Sound Editing (James Richard)
SUMMARY: In Sparta, Mississippi, wealthy businessman Phillip Colbert is found lying in the street after being murdered. When the coroner announces that the crime is recent, police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) sends his deputies out to pick up any transients. One of the deputies, Sam Wood (Warren Oates), finds a black man named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) at the train station, and quickly arrests him. However, when the two arrive back at the police station, Tibbs has a surprise for everyone: he is a police officer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (he was passing through town after visiting his mother). Gillespie calls Tibbs’ chief to confirm this, and learns that Tibbs is actually the top homicide detective in his department; his chief also requires Tibbs to volunteer his services. This he does, but both Tibbs and Gillespie take it as little more than a formality. Tibbs plans to leave soon. However, when he learns that the police have arrested an escaped man, and believe him to be the murderer, he is able to prove the man’s innocence quickly and decisively. He does all of this in front of Colbert’s widow, who demands that Tibbs remain on the case, or else she will remove the factory her husband was working on building in town. After checking with the mayor, Gillespie asks Tibbs to stay. Tibbs agrees (very reluctantly), and soon learns that Colbert’s only real enemy was Eric Endicott, the wealthiest man in the area, who was vehemently against the factory. When Tibbs and Gillespie visit to question the man, Endicott slaps Tibbs after an offending remark — and Tibbs slaps him back. Endicott is furious that Gillespie has not taken action against Tibbs, and he sends a group of four young men out after Tibbs. They chase him down and corner him in a mechanic’s garage, but Gillespie arrives and drives them off. He tells Tibbs to leave town, but Tibbs insists on remaining and solving the murder.
Tibbs then requests that Sam Wood (who found the body) retrace his exact steps of the night of the murder, while Tibbs rides along. When Gillespie finds out, he also joins the pair. They go to a diner where Wood stopped for a drink and a piece of pie, but the guy who works there, Ralph, refuses to serve Tibbs. After leaving the diner, the three continue to drive around until Tibbs notes that Wood changed his route. Gillespie then goes out on his own and finds that Wood deposited over $600 in the bank the day after the murder: he also knows that Colbert had cashed a $900 check that day, and only $300 was found on his body. He arrests Wood as the murderer, but Tibbs disagrees with the conclusion. A squabbling sister and brother then walk into the police station. The man is Lloyd Purdy, and he has dragged his 16-year-old sister Delores in with him; he claims that Delores is pregnant by Sam Wood. Tibbs leaves before the discussion is complete, and from another man in the jail, he learns about a woman who will perform abortions for a sizable payment. After a little more investigation, he is able to prove that Wood did not kill Colbert — the man was murdered elsewhere, then transported back into town in his own car; Wood was in his patrol car that night, and could not have driven two cars. Tibbs also announces that he knows what Wood changed his route on the ride-along — the real route took him by the Purdy house, where he knew Delores would be parading around naked. With the help of a few locals, Tibbs then tracks down the woman who performs abortions and questions her. She refuses to give away the name of the man who paid for the abortion, but just then Delores shows up. When she sees Tibbs she runs, and he chases her. He is stopped by a gun, held by Delores’ boyfriend — Ralph, the guy from the diner. Before anything can happen, a gang of thugs (including Purdy) shows up looking for Tibbs. Tibbs manages to stave off an attack by proving to Purdy that it was Ralph who got his sister pregnant, not Sam Wood: when a fight breaks out Ralph shoots and kills Purdy before being disarmed by Tibbs, who then holds the others at gunpoint until help arrives. Back at the station, Ralph confesses to the murder. He had originally been hitching a ride with Colbert, but after learning of the man’s wealth killed him and took most of his money. The next morning Gillespie escorts Tibbs to the train station, where he shakes his hand and thanks him before sending him home.
MY TAKE: To me, this movie is really interesting because it was filmed in the same era it was set in — therefore, the racism that is being portrayed is real. In fact, filming was kind of difficult for the movie as the director had problems with Southern authorities, and Sidney Poitier flat-out refused to go south of the Mason-Dixon line. That might be a good thing, since there’s that whole slapping scene. Personally, I thought it was great, though it clearly demonstrated that Tibbs was from a very different world than the one in which he found himself. I love how he didn’t hesitate, just slapped the man back as soon as he was hit. I loved it even more when old Endicott started to cry after Tibbs and Gillespie left. I actually didn’t consider Gillespie’s reaction (or lack thereof) to be a big deal — I figured he was just shocked, and had enough respect for Tibbs to let things lay. Apparently it got him into a lot of trouble elsewhere, though. As I watched the movie, one of the first things I thought was that it was completely moronic for a woman to be walking through her house stark naked, with all the curtains open, in town. I then kind of forgot about it, but it actually came up again when Wood was arrested. Then I found out Delores was only 16, and it made more sense — teenagers are not known for good decision-making. I also thought that maybe Ralph was the murderer when Tibbs, Gillespie and Wood went to the diner on their recreation of the murder night. Something about the way Ralph snapped at Tibbs made me suspicious, since he seemed so easygoing. The murder victim wasn’t black, so it wasn’t a race thing, but it just made me think. I was quite proud to find out that I was right. Things end pretty happily for Tibbs and Gillespie, as Gillespie smiles and acts relatively friendly to Tibbs as he leaves on the train. Actually, though, I think Gillespie always respected Tibbs — he found out pretty quickly how smart and how good a detective the guy was — he just resented the man’s presence, and knew how difficult things were going to be in a town in Mississippi.
Fun fact: Rod Steiger has the odd distinction of being on the receiving end of two of the greatest lines in movie history: he plays Marlon Brando’s brother in On the Waterfront, and is told that Brando “coulda been a contender”, and in this movie, is told by Sidney Poitier that “They call me Mister Tibbs!”
RATING: Very good; good mystery.