In The Heat of the Night: I knew going in that this was Sidney Poitier’s movie (and it is, and no dispute there). But I had no idea it would also be Rod Steiger’s movie, too.
Steiger turns in such a natural performance that you’d swear he was a Mississippi native. He approaches every crisis with a sullen fatigue born of humidity and small-town politics. Director Norman Jewison’s added touch of having Steiger chew on gum throughout is perfect: it tempts us to compare him to a farm animal.
By being relaxed and natural, Steiger contrasts brightly with Poitier. Poitier moves through every scene with the poise of a ballet dancer (or a fencer, more aptly), holding tight reserves of anger. He’s walking through Sparta, MS, like a kabuki performer because he knows his life is in very real danger. Compare this to Steiger, who’s in the seat of his power, and the choice to make him look lazy and tired becomes genius.
I’d have known this if I did about five minutes of research on the movie beforehand. I chose to stay in the dark, though, so I could go into the movie fresh. And it paid off. In The Heat of the Night is more than just an important movie in the American canon – it’s also a really good murder mystery. It cranks the tension, it throws twists upon twists and it makes every character distinct. There are a hundred movies released every year which aren’t gripping dramas on the institutions of race and class butting head-on in the American South that can’t manage that kind of taut storytelling.
TL;DR: In The Heat of the Night is just as good as everyone says it is.