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in the heat of the night

20 may 2019

In the Heat of the Night won the Academy Award for best picture released in 1967. It's not now considered the greatest film of that year; in fact some people are incredulous that the Academy could have passed up The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (and not even nominated Cool Hand Luke or the Foreign Film winner, the Czech masterpiece Closely Watched Trains). Yet In the Heat of the Night is an excellent film. It may not match the artistry or influence of some of its contemporaries, but it's a tight story with outstanding performances by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. I had never known about its source material till, working my way down the mystery shelf at my public library, I came across the 2015 fiftieth anniversary edition of John Ball's novel.

Ball's In the Heat of the Night is a true puzzle whodunit, though I'm not sure the reader is as fairly supplied with clues as in a novel by, say, Ellery Queen. Sam Wood, a flawed but conscientious cop in the small southern city of Wells in the 1960s, finds a dead body on the street one night. The corpse is that of a certain Enrico Mantoli, a medium-name orchestra conductor who has been angling to open a major music festival in Wells. Wood dutifully hauls in the most usual of suspects: a Negro waiting for a northbound train.

But this black man turns out to be Virgil Tibbs – not only no murderer, but one of the sharpest homicide detectives on the West Coast. Tibbs has been in Wells en route to visiting family in the area and would like nothing better than to go back to Pasadena as directly as possible. But the local police chief Bill Gillespie, new to town after a career in corrections in Texas, knows next to nothing about murder investigations; and a rich, relatively liberal patron of the arts insists that Tibbs help Gillespie find the killer.

You can imagine the complications, though since In the Heat of the Night is a fairly canonical bit of Americana now (as both film and TV series), you perhaps don't have to. Gillespie despises Tibbs. Sam Wood grudgingly comes to like Tibbs – for one thing, Tibbs quickly clears him when Sam himself is suspected of killing Mantoli. Tibbs solves the mystery, in effect playing Sherlock Holmes to Gillespie's dopey Lestrade. All is restored to order in Wells, and Virgil Tibbs finally catches his train out.

A couple of elements of In the Heat of the Night now seem corny: a love-at-first-sight relationship between Sam Wood and Mantoli's daughter Duena, and Tibbs' brief transfiguration into a martial-arts expert. But for the most part, it's competent mystery writing. And the competent-mystery aspect of the novel is of course mainly a pretext for exploring white racism from the inside out. Ball (a white writer) stays mostly outside of Virgil Tibbs' head, but he dwells for a while in both Bill Gillespie's and Sam Wood's. Both white men viscerally dislike their black colleague. But Wood's dislike, as I said, changes to respect and even admiration as Tibbs proves himself, while Gillespie's dislike morphs into envy mixed with a good proportion of fear.

As I remember the film, Gillespie's role (for Rod Steiger) bulks much larger than Wood's (Warren Oates) and is more nuanced than the Gillespie of the novel. Steiger's character conflates many of the aspects that Ball distributes between his two white protagonists, and wins more of our admiration in the process. Probably a good screenwriting decision by Stirling Silliphant, and one that paid off for Steiger with an Academy Award.

Both film and novel had many sequels. Ball wrote a seven-novel series, Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins starred in a seven-year TV series, and Poitier made two feature sequels before audiences and critics lost interest. But the original has lost none of its impact after more than half a century. If, as John Ridley suggests in his preface to the 2015 edition, Virgil Tibbs comes "dangerously close to being 'magical'" (xi) – a white writer's idea of a Sir-Galahad-like Negro – the stylization of Tibbs' character might now seem like a good aesthetic and rhetorical choice. Ball could create a convincing Pasadena cop, having observed California police procedure first-hand; but he knew he could not ventriloquize a convincing African-American. So he just let Virgil Tibbs do his detective stuff, and concentrated on getting under the skin of the white characters who are at first Virgil's opponents, and later on his grudging allies.

Ball, John. In the Heat of the Night. 1965. New York: Penguin, 2015. PS 3552 .A455I5