In the Heat Of The Night was written by Stirling Silliphant (based on a novel by John Ball) and directed by Norman Jewison. It’s a 1967 murder mystery starring Sidney Poitier. For having such a complicated plot, it has a natural simplicity about it. A large part of this is made possible by establishing 2 strong key characters in a relatively straightforward situation. A town full of racism has a murder that needs to be solved, and Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who just happens to be a top notch homicide detective from out of town, is the only hope for truthfully finding out who did it.

Ivo has us watching this movie for Directing class, and I can understand why. The plot twists and turns like crazy, and each new direction is spurred by a characters actions. Here’s a quick outline, just to give you an idea of what we are dealing with here:

  • Virgil is the first suspect in the murder – based on race alone
  • Virgil is revealed as a Police Officer from out of town, and is released immediately
  • The police bring in a new suspect, and with one look, Virgil proves them wrong.
  • Police chief Gillespie is frustrated and tries to make Virgil leave
  • Colbert’s widow see’s Virgil’s potential and requests (demands) that he stay on the investigation.
  • Virgil follows a lead, and in the process has to stand up for himself against racism. Gillespie doesn’t like the drama this causes and tries to make Virgil leave
  • Virgil is too invested into the case to leave, so he insists on staying to finish the job
  • Chief Gillespie’s new suspect is one of his own officers, but Virgil proves him wrong yet again
  • Gillespie gives Virgil 1 last night to finish the investigation. Virgil follows his last lead and ends up with a confession. Case solved
As you can see, both the characters Virgil and Gillespie change their motives practically every bullet point listed above. One minute Gillespie wants Virgil to leave town, and the next he needs him. Virgil wants to leave and then he is too stubborn to leave. Somehow this dance continues for the whole 109 minutes of film.  And yet I call them strong characters.
These characters are obviously deeper than what I’ve described on the surface. One scene that illustrates this well is when Virgil is being attacked by 4 locals. He puts on a brave performance, but you can see he is scared. Then Gillespie steps in and chases the attackers away. On the surface Gillespie is more of a racist than any of the 4, but when it really comes down to it in this scene, he knows what is right and acts upon it.
In terms of structure, the screenplay follows a pattern throughout. Basically, Gillespie (and his small town police force) jumps on any opportunity to blame someone for the murder and claim they’ve solved it. Virgil Tibbs, on the other hand, needs concrete proof before making such accusations, so he ends up proving Gillespie wrong time and time again. There is a string of dialogue 01:23 minutes in that really captures this conflict:
Gillespie – “I know Colbert cut a cheque for $900, I know Sam made a big cash deposit, I know you caught Sam in a lie, and I know that’s enough for me.”
Tibbs – (chuckles)…”Well you’re making a mistake”
Simple, but ultimately it gives you the whole movie. Add some racism in there, and you can piece together the rest. Great film, and a true example of how a complicated story can be broken down into simple elements and viewed as such.

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