Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Poitier, Steiger Star in Mystery

Cleveland Press August 11, 1967

The locale is Sparta, Miss., and a white man has been murdered and robbed. A Negro stranger with money in his wallet is picked up at the railroad station.

It's a quick solution for the drawling, southern police chief, until the stranger identifies himself as a policeman from a northern city. In fact, he's a homicide expert.

The situation is a dramatic beginning for a fair-to-middling mystery story and a magnificent drama of racial and individual tensions.

With marvelous restraint Stirling Silliphant s screenplay and Norman Jewison's direction build a drama out of a series of confrontations. Attitudes clash, prejudices come into play, an undercurrent of hate breaks out in many ways some trifling, others large.

A GREAT MEASURE OF THE SUCCESS of this movie must be credited to the principal players -- Sidney Poitier as the Negro detective and Rod Steiger as the small town chief.

Their performances have integrity, a genuineness that transcends the script, an honesty that prevents them from striving for effects.

Steiger's first reaction is one of a red neck Southerner against all Negroes. Later, with the knowledge of the other man's profession, the hostility is mixed with resentment, then with grudging respect but never without irritation.

Poitier, on the other hand, indicates not only his resentment but his contempt for the other's lack of knowledge. He has an icy aloofness that finally cracks to let out the inner feelings of bitterness and frustration.

IN BOTH CASES the changes are gradual like layers being peeled away. The characters remain human and neither fully loses his resentments. The expected conclusion does not find them in attitudes of mutual respect but in simply greater degrees of understanding.

The plot has Steiger retaining Poitier less out of a desire to solve the crime than out of a desire to have a scapegoat if it isn't solved.

In the course of the investigation it is clear that at one point Poitier is more concerned with proving a certain white Southerner has committed the crime than he is of solving it.

THE MYSTERY PLOT itself is not always fully clear nor convincing. But it is minor and really unimportant to the larger drama.

Director Jewison is the man who gave us "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" not so long ago. That movie was a wonderful comedy which incidentally said some interesting things about the cold war.

With "In the Heat of the Night" Jewison has again provided us with a motion picture which first entertains but says something along the way.