In the Heat of the Night has just been released on Blu-ray for the first time. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967 and, almost fifty years later, it's hard to get a handle on just how much impact this relatively low-budget film had at the time.
At the height of civil rights turmoil in the South, Heat confronted changing ideas about race while presenting itself as the kind of stand-issue police procedural that Hollywood turned out by the gross. Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective who's accused of murdering a prominent businessman as he travels through Mississippi. Once the local sheriff Gillespie (played by Rod Steiger, who won the Best Actor Oscar for the role) realizes that Tibbs didn't commit the crime, he reluctantly enlists the big-city cop to help him solve the murder.
Poitier demands respect in a town that's not used to seeing a black man in a suit and tie and certainly not used to one acting like an equal. The scene where Tibbs returns a slap from a man he's trying to question was an incredibly shocking moment in the context of the civil rights tensions in 1967.
The In the Heat of the Night TV series that ran in the late '80s and '90s really was a standard police procedural. The show starred Howard Rollins and Carroll O'Connor and left out almost all of the racial tension from the movie. While you might agree that's a sign of progress that a black man and a white man working together to solve crimes in the South was no big deal, the show's success did obscure the movie's impact and message.
The new disc recycles the bonus features from a 2008 DVD version. There's a commentary track featuring director Norman Jewison, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and stars Rod Steiger and Lee Grant. and a series of documentary featurettes about the making of the movie. Like a lot of movies from the '60s and '70s, Heat shows a lot of film grain in the high definition transfer and some of you that like to show off your home theaters with a movie like Pacific Rim won't think it looks that much better than a DVD. Still, there's a new 5.1 audio mix that offers a semblance of surround sound for the gearheads.
There's some excellent background on the movie in Mark Harris' book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which tells the story of the five movies nominated for Best Picture that year: Heat, Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and (what?) Doctor Doolittle. Harris (rightfully) points out that year as a transition point between old & new Hollywood. With a few decades perspective, In the Heat of the Night to have a lot more in common Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate than anyone realized at the time. The take on race relations in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (which also starred Poitier - he had a great year in 1967 but someone didn't get any Oscar nominations) seems positively dated compared to Heat.
You can also rent In the Heat of the Night from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. It's not streaming anywhere but it shows up on TV from time to time, including Turner Classic Movies this past Monday. This disk is 100% worth renting if it shows up in your Redbox and worth the purchase if you've been thinking about adding it to your movie library.