Norman Jewison directs Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger and Warren Oates in this seminal black detective solves a crime in a whistlestop racist town thriller.
A lurid Deep South detective mystery given added depth by dropping (like an atom bomb) Poitier’s defiant and superior Virgil Tibbs into its racist milieu. The tension his skin colour, education and obvious unmatched policing skill generates in this backwards society gives every scene, every interaction a palpable charge. The mystery itself is lightly sidelined, and the dismount at the end when Tibbs is so close to cracking the case but with a lynch mob three paces from his neck, are the only false notes. Everything else pops with believable sweat, anger and hate. Poitier has always been a better actor than the worthy roles his symbolic central casting allowed him during the civil rights era so it is Steiger as small town sheriff, used to lording it over everyone but with little connection to his citizens, who really walks away with this. He gets a complex character, predjudiced but open to change, lonely and disgusted in life but stuck having to keep the wheels falling off his far worse hometown. The quieter, almost flirtatiously respectful, moments between him and the star contain even more controversial power than the shouty, slappy famous bits that get all the praise and made this a classic.