Film: In the Heat of the Night

"They call me Mister Tibbs!"
Det. Virgil Tibbs

A 1965 novel by John Ball, In the Heat of the Night also spawned a film and a television series. The film version, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, was the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1967.

On his way back home after visiting his mother, Black Philadelphian Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is arrested on suspicion of the murder of a prominent factory owner in Sparta, Mississippi. In his one phone conversation, he reveals that he's actually a homicide detective back 'up North', and is told by his superiors that he should assist the locals in solving the case — partnered with the casually racist Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger). It's a rocky start to the partnership, but the more Tibbs displays his detective prowess, the more Gillespie comes to respect him. Working together, and fighting together against the truly rabid racism of some of the local rednecks, they solve the case.

Twenty years later the film spawned a TV series with different actors, which has its own page.

This film contains examples of:

  • Angry Black Man: Tibbs has every reason for his patience to be tested, and he later admits that his anger got him on the wrong track for a bit.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: Mama Caleba, the town abortionist.
  • Book Ends: Tibbs arriving in town by train, Tibbs leaving town by train.
  • California Doubling: Though the film is set in Mississippi, the '60s political climate necessitated filming in Illinois.
    • Specifically, Poitier refused to shoot south of the Mason-Dixon line. Why? Because of an unpleasant experience some months earlier involving himself, Harry Belafonte, and a group of friendly Klansmen. (A few scenes were, however, shot in Tennessee — most notably Endicott's cotton field, which Illinois couldn't provide.)
  • Character Tics: Gillespie chews gum constantly.
  • Deep South
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Gillespie. Seriously, don't. He gets scary.
  • False Rape Accusation: Or statutory rape, anyway. Delores Purdy accuses Sam Wood of impregnating her to cover for Ralph Henshaw.
  • Feet-First Introduction: Tibbs, disembarking from the train during the opening credits. We don't see his face (or see him again at all) until some ten minutes into the film.
  • Heat Wave: It's summer in Mississippi, after all.
  • London England Syndrome: When they first meet, Tibbs tells Gillespie he's from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not Philadelphia, Mississippi.
  • Momma's Boy: The reason Tibbs is in Sparta in the first place is that he's changing trains on his way back from visiting his mother.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Gillespie starts out as one. By the end of the movie, he can hardly even be called a bigot.
    • Tibbs briefly slips into this territory for a moment as well, enraged from being slapped by the plantation owner Endicott:
      Tibbs: I can pull that fat cat down and bring him right off this hill!
      Gillespie: Oh, boy... Man, you're just like the rest of us, ain't ya?
  • Odd Couple: Gillespie and Tibbs.
  • The Peeping Tom: Officer Sam Wood stops on his nightly patrol route to gawk at Delores Purdy, who parades around her kitchen in the nude.
  • Police Are Useless: Sparta police, anyway (unless you're interested in arresting the wrong man). No wonder Mrs. Colbert insists on keeping Tibbs around.
    • However, it's explained that Sparta hadn't had a murder in ages, and the small-town tactics they employ doesn't cover the severity of the case. Gillespie is competent in things like chasing down suspects, but figuring out a murder requires the forensics skills that Tibbs knows by heart.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The novel's Mr. Tibbs was a polite, non-confrontational African American; the film's Mr. Tibbs, on the other hand, is much more assertive towards the bigots around him.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Tibbs' best-known line qualifies.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Gillespie, of all people. Despite his racism, he's pissed to find out that his men just arrested a cop. And in his own way he more or less begs Tibbs for his help, acknowledging that he and his fellow cops can't solve a murder this complicated on their own.
  • Red Herring: The racially charged environment had nothing to do with the murder. It was just a mugging gone wrong.
  • Salt and Pepper: Gillespie and Tibbs, again.
  • Sequel: Poitier reprises his role in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971), both of which are set in San Francisco and feature more of a Blaxploitation flavor.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Gillespie isn't too thrilled to have Tibbs second-guessing him during the early part of the investigation. But when Tibbs keeps getting proved correct, Gillespie lets up on the animosity. For his part, Tibbs doesn't help ease tensions as he withholds key observations at times and keeps trying to lead the investigation his way.
  • They Call Me Mister Tibbs: The Trope Namer.
  • Title Theme Tune: Performed by Ray Charles.
  • Wham Line:
    Gillespie: Now, just what do you do there in little ol' Pennsylvania to earn that kinda money?
    Tibbs: I'm a police officer!
    • Later on, when Gillespie suspects his deputy Sam of the murder, Tibbs delivers a line which shakes the former:
      Tibbs: Sam couldn't have driven two cars.
  • Wrongly Accused: Tibbs is but the first of several people falsely blamed for the murder.
    • The second was Harvey, a guy who was caught with Colbert's wallet. Virgil cleared him because he was left-handed, and the blows to Colbert's wallet were from the right hand.
    • The third was Sam, one of Gillespie's men having deposited a large amount of cash around the time of the murder, and lied about the road he drove on during his beat. The reason for his lie is because he didn't want reveal he was eyeing Delores Purdy, who is notorious for parading around in the nude. He also couldn't have murdered Colbert, because the person who killed Colbert drove the dead man's car. Sam couldn't have driven that car, and his own patrol car.