Apart from the racial politics, this is just a damn good movie. Great characters across the board. A solid police procedural that I didn’t immediately figure out (SPOILER: I shoulda known something was up with those pies).
Rod Steiger is perfectly greasy and deep fried as Chief Gillespie, letting what smatterings of honor and respect for Tibbs he develops shine through reluctantly when necessary. Poitier is excellent as always, a calm force of nature that you can literally see paving the way for future great performances from Denzel, Cheadle, Jamie Foxx etc. Perennial favorite Warren Oates gets to have fun here in the dimwitted deputy role. Even the strange “Pie Guy” brings his A-Game in a small supporting role.
And kudos to Jewison for not cheating his characters. There’s a spot in the movie where he could have really gone for the false bonding moment between Steiger and Poitier after Tibbs has demonstrated his investigative skills, earning the Chief’s reluctant respect. They’re in the Chief’s lonely bachelor pad, sharing a beer and talking about how neither one of them has ever been married, their jobs being too demanding. The Chief asks Tibbs if he ever gets lonely and Tibbs replies: “No lonelier than you.” Suddenly, the Chief erupts, offended that a comparison has been drawn, with a string of epithets (“nigger boy” etc. etc.) and the near-bonding moment is broken.
People may not spout their racism in public so much these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. In the
Deep South. In the Northern Cities. In the supposedly open-minded West Coast. It’s still percolating. In the mind. In the eyes. In the chill cold of morning and in…well, you know the rest.