In the Heat of the Night
Adapted from John Ball’s novel by Stirling Silliphant and directed by Norman Jewison, a black homicide detective helps a police chief in a small town in Mississippi solve a difficult murder case.
At night a train stops in Sparta, Mississippi, and someone gets off.
In a coffee-shop policeman Sam Wood (Warren Oates) pays for his food and goes out. He drives his police car and listens to the radio in a residential neighborhood. He turns off his radio and lights and parks the car in front of an old house where he can see through a window a naked woman drinking a soft drink. He drives on and turns on his lights and radio. He drives through town and parks. He gets out and examines a man in a side street. He gets blood on his finger and goes into his car.
Police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) says it is Colbert and advises those taking the photos of the corpse. Sam says someone must have taken his identification. Dr. Stuart (Fred Stuart) says he has been dead for less than an hour. Gillespie says it could have been a hitch-hiker and tells Sam to check the pool hall and the depot. Sam says the pool hall closes at one.
Sam drives by the pool hall and sees that it is dark. He goes on and parks. He gets out and looks in windows before entering the depot. There he finds Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) sitting on a bench looking at a magazine. He orders him on his feet. Virgil stands up, and Sam makes him put his hands on the wall and spread his legs. He searches him and looks in his wallet. He notices he has a lot of cash and puts the wallet in his pocket. He directs him to get in the back of the police car.
Sam drives and parks his car by the police station and has Virgil get out and go in the station. He takes him into Gillespie’s office. Gillespie is listening to his air conditioner and sees Virgil’s wallet with $127 spread on his desk. Gillespie asks Sam when the last time was he ordered Courtney to put oil in the machine. Sam says Wednesday. Gillespie tells him to remind him what day it is. Sam asks about the prisoner, and Gillespie learns his name is Virgil and laughs. Virgil agrees they will have no trouble with him. Sam goes out. Gillespie asks Virgil what he hit him with and what a northern boy is doing down there. Virgil says he was waiting for the train. Gillespie says there are no trains at that hour, but Virgil says that on Tuesdays there is the 4:05 to Memphis. Gillespie admits he is right, sits down, and puts his foot on his desk. He says he runs a safe town there. He asks him to tell him how he killed Mr. Colbert. Sam starts to come in; but Gillespie tells him not now, and he closes the door. Virgil says he was visiting his mother and came in on the 12:35 from Brownsville and was waiting for the 4:05. Gillespie says he earned that money by killing an important white man. Virgil says he made the money working seven days a week. Gillespie says colored boys don’t earn that kind of money and asks how he got it. Virgil says he earned it in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gillespie asks how he earned it, and Virgil says he is a police officer. He tosses his badge on the desk, and Gillespie looks at it. Gillespie calls in Wood and asks if he questioned the man before he brought him in. Sam says no. He has Sam look at the badge and shouts at him. Gillespie tells him to take Virgil out and hold him while he sends a wire. Virgil suggests it would be faster if he called, and he offers to pay for the call. Gillespie asks Virgil how much he gets paid, and he says he earns $162.39 a week. Gillespie tells Sam not to ruffle him. They go out, and Gillespie asks for long distance.
Charlie brings in pictures of the dead man, and Sam takes them from him. Charlie asks to be paid, and Sam says he can bill the department. Sam says they look bad, and Virgil asks to see them. Gillespie comes out and says the chief wants to talk to Virgil. He goes to the phone and apologizes for involving the chief. Virgil says they would probably not want his help. He hands the phone to Gillespie who learns that he is their best homicide expert. Gillespie says they won’t need his help and thanks him for the offer before hanging up. Virgil takes out his cash, and Gillespie says they will pay for their own call. Virgil counts his cash quickly. Gillespie asks if he will look at this body, but Virgil says no and starts to leave. Gillespie asks him why he won’t look at it before his train comes. Virgil asks why, and Gillespie says he is not an expert on homicide.
In his office Dr. Stewart talks to a man about the funeral. Gillespie and Virgil come in, and Gillespie asks him to look at the body. Virgil notices a new manicure and says he needs ammonium hydrosulfide, benzidine, peroxide of hydrogen, copper powder, distilled water, a 6-inch celluloid scale, a thermometer, tweezers, calipers, and toothpicks. He takes off the shoes and socks and examines the feet. He asks what time he died, and Dr. Stewart says it was about 2. Virgil asks him to notice that rigor mortis has started to set in and says he must have died earlier. He says they will know more precisely when they get a thermometer. The phone rings, and Gillespie says he has a runaway suspect and goes out. Virgil says he needs to wash his hands.
In the day Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson) is running in the woods and can hear dogs chasing him. He is followed by the dog owner with dogs on leashes, two policemen, and other officers. Shagbag calls on his radio that he is headed for the river and Arkansas.
Harvey crosses the tracks by the river, and a long train goes by. The police with the dogs have to wait for the train to cross the tracks. Harvey runs along the river bank, climbs a ladder to the bridge, and runs across it. Gillespie is waiting in his car and radios that he has got him. He starts his car and drives on the bridge. He approaches Harvey from behind, and he stops running.
Virgil goes into the police station. The desk officer Courtney (Peter Whitney) says Mrs. Colbert is there. Virgil asks how she is taking it. Courtney says the chief had to leave, and she does not know about it. Virgil goes into the chief’s office while Courtney says he can’t go in there. Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant) sees him and says she has a right to know what happened to her husband. Virgil tells her that he is dead and was killed, and they don’t know who did it yet. She puts up her hands and shakes her head. She says it is hot in the room, and he helps her to sit down. She starts up, and he takes her hand. She starts to cry and asks him to leave her alone for a few minutes.
He goes out and can hear her crying. Gillespie returns and tells Virgil they don’t need him any more. Two officers bring in the handcuffed man, and Virgil asks if he can examine him. He looks at his hands and arms, touching them. Harvey pulls them back, and Gillespie asks if he is finished. Virgil says yes. Gillespie goes into his office with the prisoner, and the police start to celebrate. Virgil asks if he confessed, and Sam says he will. Virgil says he thinks the man is left-handed, and one of the officers says that is correct. Virgil says that would make him innocent.
Gillespie shows a wallet to Mrs. Colbert, and the prisoner says he picked it up and that it was lying next to him. Harvey is taken out, and Gillespie asks her if she will identify the body. They come out of his office, and he tells Martin to take Mrs. Colbert to the funeral parlor and Sam to take Virgil to the depot. Sam says that Virgil thinks Harvey is innocent. Gillespie says that Harvey had Colbert’s wallet, and Virgil says he could have picked it up after the crime. Mrs. Colbert says that is what the boy said he did. Virgil explains that the blow was struck from a direction which indicates that the killer was probably right-handed. Sam and the others say they know that Harvey is left-handed. Gillespie gets angry and asks Virgil what they call him in Philadelphia, and he says they call him Mr. Tibbs. Gillespie raises his voice and tells Sam to take him back to the depot now. Virgil says he will have the FBI lab send him the report on this. Gillespie asks for the box Virgil has, and he refuses to give it to him. Mrs. Colbert asks what kind of people they are and says she wants them to find out who killed her husband. She goes out. Gillespie asks for the box, and Virgil refuses to hand it over. Gillespie orders him locked up with Harvey, and they do so.
In the cell Harvey asks why he is wearing white-man’s clothes. Virgil says he is on his side. Harvey says he does not need him. Virgil says he is all he has, and he shows his police badge. Harvey asks why they locked him up, and Virgil says they put him with Harvey for another reason. Harvey says he saw the body and took the wallet. He had heard about the new chief Gillespie and tried to run for the border. Virgil asks what time he found the wallet. Harvey says it was after two. Virgil asks where he was the previous three hours, and Harvey tells him and says who could be witnesses. Virgil asks if he has ever been in trouble with the police, and he admits he was arrested by Sam Wood after a date with Delores Purdy. Virgil asks on what charge, and he says she took off her clothes. He says she should stop showing herself naked in her house. Virgil asks to see his right hand. Gillespie and Sam come in, and they ask him to sign a waiver for false arrest. Virgil signs it, and they let him out. Gillespie says he can leave on the 12:10 train. Virgil advises him to change the charge on Harvey because he was playing pool at the time and can prove it. He says that Colbert was killed somewhere else and then moved to Main Street. Virgil goes out, and Gillespie tells Courtney to change the charge to theft. Courtney answers the phone and tells the chief that the mayor is on the line.
Gillespie drives and parks. He goes into Sparta Equipment and finds Mrs. Colbert with Mayor Shubert (William Schallert) who asks about a “cover-up arrest.” Gillespie says there was no cover-up, and they just dropped the charges to theft. She insist that she does not want the Negro officer taken off the case. The mayor asks about this, and Gillespie says he is from the north and was passing through. She says he made them realize they had the wrong man. If he does not stay, she will pack up and leave. As she goes out, the mayor tells her they will take care of everything. The mayor tells Gillespie to take care of this. Gillespie says they may have to step on Endicott’s toes. The mayor persuades Gillespie to let the Negro stay and solve the case, letting them off the hook.
Virgil is waiting outside the station, and Gillespie comes and asks if he has to leave today. Virgil say yes, and Gillespie asks him to stay for a while. Virgil says no. Gillespie sits down and says the town needs a factory. He says Colbert came from Chicago and was planning to hire colored people as half the thousand workers. Mrs. Colbert wants them to catch the killer. He says no killer will mean no factory with those jobs. He asks Virgil to help his people, but he says they are not his people but Gillespie’s town. Virgil is sick of their town, and Gillespie says he would like to horse-whip him. Virgil laughs and says his father used to say that. Gillespie struggles to hold his temper and says Virgil is so smart that he must stay and put them to shame. He does not think he would miss that opportunity. Virgil picks up his suitcase and follows Gillespie.
Gillespie tells the black mechanic Jess to give Virgil a car that runs and that the police will pay. Gillespie drives off. The mechanic is surprised to learn that Virgil is a policeman. He says they need a whipping boy for their murder. Jess asks if he has a roof. Virgil says he will find a motel. Jess laughs and tells his wife Viola they have company.
Gillespie, the mayor, Endicott (Larry Gates), Tom, and two other white men are sitting around a table discussing the situation. Tom says he is going to get himself killed. The mayor says they are stuck with him. Tom puts pressure on the chief and says that the “nigger” will not live past Saturday.
Virgil goes into the Planters Hotel and asks Mrs. Colbert who her enemies are. The man with her says Endicott ran the county until they moved in. Virgil asks where Colbert was going, and she says he was not sleepy. She went to bed after eleven. The man says he did not call him or his staff after eleven. He asks about his car.
The expensive car has automatic windows, and Virgil finds blood on the passenger seat and mud with roots on the gas pedal. Gillespie arrives, and Virgil says Colbert drove that car last night. Virgil asks him to drive him to Endicott’s, and Gillespie objects.
Machines are harvesting cotton in a field. Gillespie drives Virgil who sees blacks picking cotton. They turn into the Endicott Cotton Co. and go up a long driveway to his mansion. They get out and go to the front door. Gillespie asks if he knows something he does not, and Virgil says he found some fern root in the car. A black servant comes out and takes them around to the greenhouse. They go in and find Endicott potting flowers. Gillespie introduces Virgil, and Endicott offers them a refreshment. Virgil asks for a soft drink, and Endicott orders a pitcher of lemonade. Virgil says he likes orchids too, and Endicott shows him his collection. Virgil says he likes the epiphytics. Endicott says that they need care, feeding, and cultivation that takes time, just like the Negroes. He says Mr. Colbert did not realize that. Virgil picks out a root and asks Endicott what it is called. Endicott says it is fern root. Endicott asks why they came there, and Virgil says they came to ask him about Mr. Colbert. Virgil says his hostile attitude toward Colbert is a public record. Virgil asks him if Colbert was in that greenhouse last night about midnight. Endicott slaps him, and Virgil slaps him back. Endicott says Gillespie saw it and asks what he is going to do about it. Gillespie says he does not know. Endicott says he will remember this. He says there was a time when he could have had Virgil shot. Virgil turns and goes out, followed by Gillespie.
By his car Gillespie tells Virgil he had better clear out. Virgil says he can bring that fat cat down if he has another day or two. Gillespie says he is like the rest of them.
The mayor gets off a big machine and tells Gillespie that it will be tough to keep him in his job. The mayor says Tibbs has to go, and Gillespie says he already told him. The mayor says that Mrs. Colbert will not be back until Thursday. If he catches the guilty person by then, she will not object to their sending Tibbs home for his own good. The mayor asks Gillespie why he changed his mind about Tibbs. He says the last police chief would have killed him and claimed self-defense. Gillespie gets in his car and radios to find out where Tibbs is.
Virgil is driving a car, and some men in a red car with a confederate flag are banging into his back bumper. Gillespie drives fast. Virgil makes a turn, and the other car is delayed by it. Virgil goes to a junkyard, and Gillespie takes a wrong turn.
Virgil is out of his car and looks for a place to hide. Four men with metal weapons try to close in on him in a warehouse. One says they are going to teach him manners. Virgil picks up a pipe and tells them to come and get it. They get him against a wall, and he fends them off with the pipe. Gillespie comes in and shouts for them to hold it. They stop, and he tells them to run along home. One calls him a “nigger-lover” and tells him to get rid of him. Another says if he doesn’t, they will. Gillespie grabs one and lets him go. Another warns him, and Gillespie punches him in the stomach. The four men decide to leave. As Virgil is going, Gillespie asks if he got the message yet.
At night Virgil asks Sam if he can get in his police car. He asks Sam to follow the route he followed Tuesday night at the same speed, and he persuades him to do it without asking the chief.
Ralph (Anthony James) listens to a juke box where he works. Sam has parked and says it took him ten minutes to get himself a coke. Virgil says he is coming in. Gillespie arrives in his car and slams the door. He says he told Virgil to get the hell out of there, but Virgil says he is not ready to leave. Sam says he was going to tell the chief about this in the morning. Gillespie asks if they forgot about the four maniacs. Virgil says he needs more time, and Gillespie asks if he has to put him on the train himself. Gillespie asks what he wants, and Virgil says he wants to know where Sam was on the night of the murder. Gillespie says Virgil’s being killed would make a mess in the town. The three men go inside, and Sam says he does not eat pie. Ralph says he will not serve Virgil. Sam drinks his coke, and Virgil determines what time he walked out of there. They go outside, and Virgil asks what he did that night. Sam says he called in on the radio, and Virgil has him do it. Gillespie gets angry and talks to Courtney on the radio about fixing a hinge. Gillespie gets in the back seat and tells Sam to go on.
They drive in the residential neighborhood, and Virgil asks why he changed his route. Sam asks the chief who he works for. The car stops, and Virgil gets out and walks off.
Gillespie goes into a bank at night and tells Henderson that he has official reasons for getting this information. Henderson looks up the account and says he had $208 in September 1962. Gillespie says he wants to know about yesterday. Henderson says he made a deposit of $632, and Gillespie leaves.
Virgil goes into Gillespie’s office and says he got the information from the FBI lab that Colbert was in the greenhouse. Gillespie says he has learned that Sam Wood is the killer. Virgil laughs, and Gilbert says he caught him in a lie. Sam explains why he put that money in the bank that day. Gillespie says Colbert cashed a check for $900, and Sam left some of it as sucker bait in the wallet. Sam asks who he thinks he is. Gillespie asks Virgil why he questioned Sam when he changed his route. Virgil says he knew he did so because Delores parades around at night in the nude. Gillespie reviews what he knows and says that is enough for him. He tells Sam he has to be locked up. Virgil laughs and says he is making a mistake. Gillespie says he can take his train now. Virgil goes out.
Mr. Purdy (James Patterson) comes into the police station with Delores and says he has to talk to the chief about Sam Wood. Purdy pushes her into the office and tells Gillespie that she is going to have Sam’s baby. Virgil comes in and says he needs to hear this. Purdy says he won’t talk with Virgil there. Virgil says he is a police officer. Gillespie tells Purdy to shut up, and Delores laughs.
Gillespie asks her to tell him what happened. She says her brother works nights. One night she went out on the porch, and Sam came along as he does every night. He said a cemetery is the coolest place in town. She went for a ride with him to the cemetery. Gillespie asks if things went too far. She agrees, and he asks if he forced her. Purdy says it does not matter because she is only sixteen, and that is rape in the state of Mississippi. Gillespie says he knows the law. He asks if she is sure she is pregnant, and she says yes. Virgil goes out, and Gillespie tells Courtney to come in and take down the information.
Virgil goes to the cells and asks Harvey where a guy can take a girl who has been knocked up if he has money. Harvey says there is a colored gal, and Packy would know but would not tell him unless Harvey said so. Virgil asks if he could bring him there. Harvey asks for a cheeseburger, and Virgil agrees.
In the day time some men get in the red car.
Virgil is looking at a barren field. Gillespie arrives and admits that this land is the site for the new factory. Virgil is holding a pine stake and says that he found a piece of pine in Colbert’s scalp. He says three people saw Colbert drive by their houses on the way back from Endicott’s. He says Colbert must have picked up someone in town and then come there. Gillespie says Sam must have come out there. Virgil says that they would have heard him coming. Virgil says Colbert was hit from behind. He was hung up on trying to get Endicott; but when Delores came into the office, he changed his mind. Gillespie says he is going to take Virgil to Brownsville to get on the train. Virgil explains that Colbert was killed there and driven to town, and Sam could not have driven two cars. Gillespie is quiet and asks what he wants. Virgil asks him to give him until morning.
The red car follows an old car in a black neighborhood.
At night Gillespie is lying on a couch while Virgil rests in an easy chair. Gillespie says Virgil is among the chosen few to have been in his home. Virgil says one must be careful. Gillespie asks about insomnia and pours himself bourbon, which Virgil says cannot kill it. Gillespie talks about his little problems and feels he is entitled to drink. He says no one ever comes there. He asks Virgil if he is married, and he says no. Virgil admits he was close to it. Gillespie asks if he gets lonely, and Virgil says no more than Gillespie who tells him not to get smart. He does not want pity. Gillespie answers the door, and Packer asks where he can find Virgil. Gillespie asks where he is going, and Virgil says where whitey is not allowed. He leaves with Packer.
At night the five men in the red car find Virgil’s car at the construction site and leave.
Virgil tells Packer he can go home and gets out of his truck. Virgil goes in a store, and the black woman says she is called Mama Caleba (Beah Richards). He asks for the name of the man who is paying her for Delores Purdy’s abortion. She asks why he is working for the white men. He says he wants the white boy and asks how much he is paying her. He says he has more than $600. She asks where he got that, and he says he killed Mr. Colbert. He says he does not want to send her to jail. She asks him to promise that he won’t take away what she has. She does not know his name, but she is coming there tonight. Delores comes in and sees him and runs out. Virgil runs after her and grabs her. A man in a shadow with a gun tells him to let her go. The red car arrives, and the five men get out. Purdy has a shot-gun. Virgil tells them to look in her purse because she has $100 she got from Ralph to pay for an abortion. He says that Ralph got Purdy to say that Sam Wood did it. She made a fool of him. Purdy accuses Ralph of turning his sister into a field slut, and Ralph shoots Purdy twice. Virgil takes the gun away from Ralph, and Delores cries over her brother.
In Gillespie’s office Ralph is confessing as a tape recorder runs. He tells what happened and says he could claim that someone attacked from the bushes. He says he did not mean to kill him. Gillespie says that is enough. Ralph goes out to be put in jail, and Gillespie checks the tape.
A train arrives, and Virgil and Gillespie get out of his car. Gillespie carries his suitcase and asks if he has his ticket. Virgil says yes, and Gillespie thanks him and tells him to take care. Virgil smiles and gets on the train.
This murder mystery depicts how the South is changing because of the civil rights movement. A well educated black man from the north shows that his expertise on homicide can be helpful to people, and the prejudiced southerners have to respond to a new situation.