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In the Heat of the Night (April 18/01)

Rod Steiger stars as the newly appointed Sherriff of a small Southern town, while Sidney Poitier stars as a just-passing-through FBI agent. Conflict ensues when one of Steiger's deputies arrests Poitier at the train station, on suspicion of murder. Poitier is brought to the station and Steiger is convinced that Poitier is guilty, until he discovers his identity. Much apologizing ensues and Poitier eventually winds up staying on to solve the murder.

It's interesting to note that virtually all the white people in In the Heat of the Night are portrayed as either ignorant white trash or just idiots. Even the star of the movie, Steiger, falls into one of those categories (he's an idiot). Every time someone is arrested for the murder, Steiger instantly believes that this finally is the man responsible for the murder. He does this no less than three (!) times. And each time, Poitier has to sit down with Steiger and rationally explain to him that no, this isn't the killer either. It's actually pretty funny.

One of the only non-moronic white characters is portrayed by Lee Grant, as the wife of the dead guy. She wants justice and of course insists that Poitier stays on the case (wouldn't you, if Steiger was the most competent of the police staff?) But every other character is portrayed as a redneck and usually as a dimwit. Steiger isn't exactly a dimwit, but he also has no restraint, which results in the numerous false arrests.

I did like the movie, though, because it captured that small town feel quite well, I thought, and the characters were mostly memorable. And Poitier is really good here. Besides a few "man's" and "you dig's", he's very articulate and way smarter than anyone else. Steiger is pretty good, I guess, but this character isn't much. You can see he's a good guy, but why he's portrayed as such an idiot is beyond me. I suppose if both Poitier and Steiger had been on the ball, then no conflict would have ensued.

And finally, an old movie from Norman Jewison that doesn't suck. After Rollerball, I was seriously beginning to question his abilities. Despite a few '60s era flashy touches (slow zooms abound), this is a solid little picture. One shot of Steiger driving in his car was particularly cool (you just see Steiger from the side as he's about to apprehend one of his many wrong suspects).

The resolution is a little convenient (what if the gang had approached Poitier ten minutes earlier?) and the film's deliberate pace takes a while to get used to, but In the Heat of the Night is certainly worth checking out, if only for Poitier's stellar performance.

out of

About the DVD: Available either by itself or as part of the five disc Sidney Poitier collection (which also includes For Love of Ivy, Lilies of the Field, The Organization, and They Call Me Mister Tibbs!), MGM Home Entertainment presents In the Heat of the Night in its original aspect ratio, along with an audio commentary featuring Jewison, Steiger, Grant, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.
© David Nusair