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In the Heat of the Night: A Classic Murder Melodrama

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Alyson Nounй

AMS 3930

Critical Analysis I

In the Heat of the Night: A Classic Murder Melodrama

In the Heat of the Night is a classic 1967 film directed by Norman Jewison and produced by Walter Mirisch for MGM Home Entertainment. The screenplay written by Stirling Silliphant was based on a novel by John Ball. This film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and received five Oscars, including Best Picture.

The story begins after the murder of a wealthy northern industrialist who hoped to found a large factory in this quiet town of Sparta, Mississippi. Police deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates) is sent by his Sheriff, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to comb the streets looking for the potential killer. Wood discovers Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a well-dressed black stranger waiting for a late night train in a deserted train station and because of his color, immediately takes him into custody as a prime suspect. It is soon discovered that Tibbs is a renowned Philadelphia homicide detective only in town briefly to visit his mother. Tibbs' Chief back home offers up Tibbs' services to Sheriff Gillespie, who has very little experience with homicides. Gillespie reluctantly accepts this assistance. The color barrier between these two stubborn men provides for tension and additional obstacles in the attempt to solve this murder. However, as Tibbs displays his skills as a detective, he begins to win the respect, protection, and ultimately friendship of Gillespie.

I chose to analyze the scene when Tibbs is first brought before Gillespie - this shrewd, overweight, gum-chewing, fast-talking, redneck Sheriff. In the beginning of the scene Tibbs is thought to be the murderer and by the end of the scene, the two men have reluctantly decided to work together. I selected this scene because it establishes the central dynamic between these two main characters. They are both difficult men, obstinate and stubborn, yet sharp enough to recognize when they are wrong. Underneath they are similarly driven, yet initially the color barrier separates them. Only by being forced into close proximity, into conflict and resolution, do they reach understanding. Neither is compromised; both have prejudices and weaknesses common to us all. This topic of race was extremely controversial during the making of this film. As pointed out in our text, however, "...Poitier is equal, if not superior, to any of his white antagonists, who are forced to recognize his abilities and to purge themselves of their own racism" (Belton 334). This film was certainly a "message" picture of that time in our country, but it was also an excellent film in its own right due in large part to the magnificent casting of Poitier and Steiger.

Throughout not only this scene, but the entire film, Jewison keeps in mind that "intelligibility of dialogue always takes precedence over that of other sounds" (Belton 57). There is very little sound in the scene other than the voices of the characters. The sounds of the broken air conditioner are focused on early in the scene to help establish the low-budget nature of this police department. We hear the sound of a train approaching just as Tibbs is explaining to a doubting Gillespie that that was what he was waiting for at the depot. The minimal background noise allows the viewer to concentrate on the dialogue and the immediate tension existing between these two characters.

Gillespie: "What did you hit him with?

Tibbs: "Hit Whom?"

Gillespie: "Whom? Whom? What are you a Northern boy? What's a

Northern boy like you doing all the way down here?"

From this initial dialogue exchange the viewer is made aware of the above average intellect level of Tibbs. Throughout this scene, Tibbs is very precise, careful, and serious about his choice of words, but at the same time, he has a distinct level of confidence. Gillespie, on the other hand, once learning of Tibbs' position as a well-respected out-of-town detective is almost immediately put on the defensive. He initially declines the offer from Tibbs' chief to have Tibbs assist with the investigation. It is apparent that he does not want to admit that he needs the help of a black man.

The mise en scene of this particular scene represents the "elements of style that serve to shape the narrative" (Belton 48). Jewison has very specific ideas about the relationship that the actors, dйcor, set, costumes, lighting, and camera should have to each other (Belton 48). To begin, the set plays a crucial role in the actual telling of the story. Taking place in a somewhat dilapidated police station, the sparse surroundings give insight into the small-town, minimal resource



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