Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a detective working the homicide beat in Philadelphia who goes back home to the Southern United States to visit his aging mother. When he shows up a white man of high social stature is found murdered. Tibbs is arrested simply because the color of his skin makes the local authorities suspicious that he may have had something to do with the killing.
Eventually the police realize who he is and he's released, but not before Tibbs' superior officer offers his skills as a detective to the southern police who are in dire need of help, not having much experience with these types of cases at all. Tibbs begrudgingly works together with the local police chief, Bill Gillespie (played brilliantly by Rod Steiger) who eventually comes to respect him even if he has trouble admitting it. Together they set out to find who killed the man and as they do so, they're both able to change each other for the better.
The film was nominated for seven Oscars and walked away from the Academy Awards that year winning five of them, and honestly, it deserved every single one of them. Poitier is excellent in the lead and shows great range in his portrayal running the gamut from understandably angry to concerned and back again with ease. Steiger is just as good, if not better, in his portrayal of an ignorant small town cop and is totally believable in this film. A great supporting cast (including a brief role from cult favorite Warren Oates as Officer Wood) and very strong and controlled direction from acclaimed director Norman Jewison make this film a true pleasure to watch..
Sidney Poitier grew up the son of a dirt farmer in the Bahamas and lived a life of poverty until he moved to the United States where he worked some very blue-collar jobs in Miami and New York City in his youth. He eventually joined the army and worked in a hospital but this didn't last long and soon he was back out working dead end jobs and living in Harlem until he decided on a whim to audition for The American Negro Theater. Rejected because of his accent, Poitier trained himself to speak with a more American style and auditioned again - this time he was accepted.
From here he eventually made a career on stage starting at first in bit parts but eventually getting bigger and better parts and winning some critical acclaim for his efforts. His stage performances lead to some film work, and the rest, as they say, is history as he finally landed the role of a leading man (an extreme rarity for a black man at that time in Hollywood) in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958), for which he received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor In A Leading Role category. He didn't win this time but in 1963 he became the first black actor to win an Academy Award for his leading role in Lilies Of The Field.
Poitier worked consistently throughout the sixties and seventies as both an actor and director and did reasonably well at both and remains today one of America's foremost beloved leading men. MGM realizes this and is well aware of his popularity, which is why they've re-released In The Heat Of The Night, arguably his most popular film and certainly his most acclaimed, in this new special edition. Considering the film has been on DVD before, is this new release worth the double dip? Read on...
In The Heat Of The Night is presented in a nice 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Compared to the previous release, this transfer is superior in pretty much every way. The picture is cleaner and contains a fair bit more detail and while the skintones show some reddish tinting the color reproduction is otherwise much stronger and more natural looking. There are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts and edge enhancement is pretty hard to spot unless you're really sitting there specifically looking for it.
Audio options are as follows: English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, English Dolby Digital Mono, French Dolby Digital Mono and Spanish Dolby Digital Mono with optional subtitles provided in English and Spanish. The 5.1 mix doesn't really do much that the mono doesn't except when it comes to the score, which is spread out considerably more to nice effect. A bit of ambient and background noise pops up in the rear channels now and again but this is a fairly dialogue heavy movie and that's where the focus of the new mix remains. There are no problems with hiss or distortion to complain about and the levels are nicely balanced throughout.
The extras for In The Heat Of The Night start off with a commentary track (carried over from the previous DVD release) from director Norman Jewison, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and cast members Lee Grant and Rod Steiger. It's quite an interesting track though it's a shame that Poitier doesn't have a commentary on this release. Regardless, the commentary that is available on the DVD is worth your time to listen to as it's quite informative on both a technical and a historical level.
MGM has created a few new featurettes included with this release, beginning with Turning Up The Heat: Making Movies In The Sixties (21:08, anamorphic widescreen, sadly interlaced) that begins with Jewison explaining what the original book was like. From there we hear from the producer who talks about the relevancy of the film. John Singleton expresses his admiration for the film and Dr. Imani Perry talks about what was happening in the United States as far as civil rights were concerned, with input from Dr. Todd Boyd. Plenty of photographs and clips from the film are used to accentuate different points made throughout the documentary, which serves to illustrate the importance of the film and the impact that it had.
The second featurette, The Slap Heard Round The World (7:24, anamorphic widescreen, also sadly interlaced), talks about the importance of the scene where Poitier gets slapped by Larry Gates and then slaps him back in return, possibly the first time in a major motion picture where a black man slapped a white man in such a way. Jewison mentions that he never let the actors rehearse it and that Poitier's reaction was completely unexpected. A few of the same interviewees from the first documentary chime in here as well to give their thoughts on the impact that this scene still carries.
The last featurette, Quincy Jones: Breaking New Sound (13:01, anamorphic widescreen, and again, interlaced), allows the same interviewees to express their admiration for the work that Jones did on the film and to explain the impact that it had on Jones' career. Jones himself shows up on camera to tell us what his inspiration was for the music he created for the film, and how jazz, which was controversial at the time, wasn't really used in the movies until this film came around.
Rounding out the disc are the films original theatrical trailer (2:47, anamorphic widescreen, and surprisingly not interlaced), animated menus and chapter stops. The insert booklet that accompanied the previous release has not been carried over.
MGM's new 40th anniversary edition of In The Heat Of The Night is great. The transfer and sound mix are both improved and the addition of some interesting and in-depth supplements really serve to add some value and context to the package. Poitier's performance remains as powerful as ever, as does the performance from Steiger, and the movie truly stands the test of time as an exciting and culturally important thriller. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.