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 due to the simple circumstance of being black and having money in his pocket. However, while the police are questioning him he reveals that he is in fact a police officer himself, and when he has Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger) contact his department for verification he is told by his superiors that he should assist the locals in solving the case — partnered with the same casually racist Gillespie. 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, chasing several false leads, and fighting against the truly rabid racism of some of the local rednecks, they solve the case.
The film received seven Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Picture, Actor (Steiger), Editing (Hal Ashby), Adapted Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant), and Sound. Poitier went on to reprise his role in the sequels They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971), both of which are set in San Francisco and feature more of an urban flavor. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack.
This film contains examples of:
- Adaptation Personality Change: Tibbs is a lot more assertive in the movie than he was in the book.
- Adaptational Villainy: Endicott, the plantation owner, is a sympathetic character in the novel with no hint of racial prejudice. In the movie he's an unabashed racist, and a few toughs try to gang-beat Tibbs after their confrontation.
- Angry Black Man: Tibbs has every reason for his patience to be tested, and he later admits that his prejudice got him on the wrong track for a bit.
- Back-Alley Doctor: Mama Caleba, the town abortionist.
- Book-Ends: Tibbs both arrives and leaves town by train.
- Character Tics: Gillespie chews gum constantly. (Rod Steiger initially didn't like the idea, until he realized that he could use it to show Gillespie emoting.)
- Chekhov's Gunman: Ralph, the diner employee, has a number of scenes in which he takes a prominent role in spite of seeming to have nothing to do with the murder. He's the first person we see in the film, shooting a rubber band at a fly. He occasionally taunts Sam by hiding pie and begins one scene by rigging the jukebox to play a song so he can dance by himself. The film justifies all this attention by revealing him to be the murderer.
- Contrived Coincidence: Sam just happens to make a large cash deposit into his bank account that almost exactly matches the amount stolen by the murderer shortly after the crime.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The overt racism and small-town ignorance of Sparta are meant to be off-putting even to audiences at the film's release.
- Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Tibbs and Gillespie seem to be bonding during a quiet moment, but the moment Tibbs says something remotely sympathetic about Gillespie's lack of romance, Gillespie turns cold and mean on a dime.
- Extremely Short Timespan: 48 hours, tops.
- False Rape Accusation: Or statutory rape, anyway. Delores Purdy is convinced to accuse officer 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.
- Fish out of Water: Tibbs, the black big-city police detective, making his way in a racist small-town Mississippi backwater.
- Greasy Spoon: Compton's Cafe, which takes a prominent role in the investigation because Sam stops there on the night of the murder and its lone employee committed the murder.
- Heat Wave: It's September, but being in Mississippi, Sparta is still in the grip of one of these.
- "London, England" Syndrome: When they first meet, Tibbs tells Gillespie he's from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not Philadelphia, Mississippi. Gillespie was checking which Philly Tibbs was referring to.note
- Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Delores Purdy tells Gillespie that Sam Wood got her pregnant after taking her to the cemetery for sex, although this turns out to be false testimony. (In a hot-as-balls place like Sparta, MS, a granite slab in a cemetery is a relief.)
- Misplaced Wildlife: When Tibbs studies the murder scene (where he tells Gillespie that "Sam couldn't have driven two cars"), the distinctive "chi-caa-go, chi-caa-go" call of a California quail can be heard. They don't come east of the Rocky Mountains.
- 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: It is explained that Sparta has not had a murder in ages, and the small-town tactics they employ do not 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. More worryingly, the police department is very quick to jump to conclusions without further investigation. (ex: Sam Wood got put in jail on both murder and statutory rape charges, one cell over from the previous suspect in that same murder case.)
- 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 is pissed to find out that his men just arrested a cop and did not even bother to search him or check his identification before bringing him into the station. And in his own way he more or less begs Tibbs for his help, acknowledging that he and his fellow cops cannot 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.
- Sam's $600 bank deposit that makes him a suspect.
- Run for the Border: Harvey Oberst, fleeing from the Sparta police, almost makes it across the Mississippi River bridge to Arkansas... except that Gillespie, already parked on the Mississippi end in his car, simply drives up and slowly intercepts him mid-span.
- Salt and Pepper: Gillespie and Tibbs.
- Scenery Censor: The opening sequence has Sgt. Wood, out on his regular nightly patrol, stopping outside the house of a gorgeous, busty, naked young Delores Purdy, who seems to know that he is outside looking. In both a long shot and a medium shot, the window rail is carefully placed to hide the woman's nipples.
- Shameless Fanservice Girl: Delores Purdy parades around her kitchen topless (nude?) to get her kicks.
- Source Music: Officer Wood listens to music on a portable radio in his patrol car, while Henshaw plays records on the jukebox at Compton's.
- A Taste of Their Own Medicine: A rich white bigot slaps Det. Virgil Tibbs for daring to question him on suspicion of murder. To the shock of white viewers and the delight of black ones, Tibbs instantly slaps the bigot back, an act that was previously unthinkable for African American characters in mainstream Hollywood films.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Gillespie is not 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 does not help ease tensions by being both the smartest cop in town and black at a time of fragile race relations.
- They Call Me Mister Tibbs: The trope namer. Virgil Tibbs says this to Gillespie after the latter asks him how he is addressed up North.
- Title Theme Tune: Performed by Ray Charles. It became a minor hit.
- Wham Line:
Gillespie: Now, just what do you do there in little ol' Pennsylvania to earn that kinda money?
- When Tibbs reveals who he is:
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 suspected of the murder, suspected simply because he is a black man in town with a large amount of money in his pockets.
- The second is Harvey Oberst, a guy who was caught with Colbert's wallet. Virgil clears him on the grounds that he is left-handed and the blows to Colbert's head were from the right hand. (Clears him of murder; he remains guilty of theft.)
- The third is Sam Wood, one of Gillespie's men, who 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, he drove that route to eye Delores Purdy, who is notorious for parading around in the nude, and he didn't want Tibbs to see and/or Gillespie to know about it. 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.
- While he's never formally charged or accused, Endicott is briefly suspected by Tibbs due to his opposition to Colbert's factory and the discovery of a fern from his greenhouse being found in the dead man's car. (Neither Tibbs nor Gillespie like him so they also don't work to clear him as a suspect, and he's only proven innocent when the real murderer confesses.)