Norman Jewison’s 1967 race drama and forensic murder-mystery thriller picked up five Oscars in its day, including best actor for Rod Steiger.
Now on rerelease, it stands up well. The sheer tactlessness of its racial confrontation has a forthright quality and a not entirely intentional documentary realism, especially in the scenes shot on location in Sparta, Illinois (standing in for a fictional Mississippi town).
The elegant Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective who finds himself having to hang around at a rail station in the south, changing trains on a trip to see his mother. For unashamedly racist reasons, this well-dressed black out-of-towner is picked up on suspicion of having committed the murder that is baffling the local cops.
Cantankerous Chief Gillespie (Steiger) is initially delighted to have such a gratifyingly obvious suspect. Yet, heroically keeping his cool and his temper in the face of such bigotry, Tibbs shows them his badge, proves he didn’t do it – and then has to join forces with Gillespie to find out who did.
It’s a clever, even brilliant premise, especially when Tibbs finds himself in a cell with another (wrong) suspect and uses the opportunity to question him. There’s a very elegant moment, when he uses his unexpected knowledge of orchids to further the investigation.
As for his odd-couple friendship with Gillespie (an emollient liberal convention, like chaining Poitier up to Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones), opinion may divide as to whether this really challenged racism. Tibbs’s hip way of saying “Ya dig?” jars a bit. But it’s a stylish performance from Poitier and an honest, intelligent contribution from Steiger.
This article was written by Peter Bradshaw, for theguardian.com on Thursday 17th November 2016 21.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010