Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates
Director: Norman Jewison
There’s a murder of a wealthy white man in a small Southern town. The local cops arrest a black man they come across who seems suspicious. He’s not doing anything wrong, but he’s black and he has money in his wallet, which is enough evidence for them. It turns out that this man is Tibbs (Poitier), a homicide cop from up North.
It’s a wonderful opener to an incredible film. Tibbs is tasked by his boss with staying in the town and finding the killer, since the victim is from the Northern states. The local police chief (Steiger) is a fat old bigot, but knows that he can’t solve the crime without Tibbs help, and they form an unlikely team. It’s a film about race and hatred, but it’s also about seeing Gillespie (the police chief) grow as a person as he learns to let go of his own racism, a role which won the actor an Oscar.
But really, this is Poitier’s film. I think this may have been the first film that I ever saw Sidney Poitier in as a child, and even then I was drawn in by his magnetism. He’s an incredibly subtle and powerful actor. A joy to watch, always. This film was in fact adapted as a vehicle for him by the producer and director. And it was ground breaking in that it took a storyline that was normally reserved for B movies, that of a black cop solving a crime, and made it a realistic crime drama. It managed to win and be nominated for several Oscars.
I love a good mystery, and this film certainly has that at it’s centre. But one thing I love about this film is watching Mr Tibbs navigate his life and the job he has to do. He has poise, a sense of care about his personal appearance, pride. He looks down on the ugliness and ignorance of the racists around him, quite openly in some scenes too, but he never stoops to their level. He’s not intimidated and not afraid to fight. He believes in the ideals of justice and truth. But he also feels very human and real too. You want this guy to win, you want to see what he’ll do next, and you feel the contrast between this sophisticated man, and the trashy and racist people he’s dealing with.
It’s a powerful film and went on to spawn sequels, starring Poitier, and a TV series. It also ushered in a new era when movies with a black lead could not be dismissed as low brow.
See It If: you love powerful performances and excellent crime thrillers. A compelling watch with an excellent central pair of characters.