It’s hard not to shout “maudlin” when the story line is about a black detective dispatched to a racist town to investigate a murder. What rescues Norman Jewison’s 1967 movie from the hackneyed is the way cop Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and bigoted police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) let the sparks fly. Gillespie isn’t flattered that Philadelphia has sent Tibbs to probe the death of a prominent businessman (“What’s a northern boy doing down here?”)
North’s the least of it, and yet Jewison, a dog with a bone, resists cliché. Tibbs and Gillespie coexist and thrive in their boiler room. How they get along, that they get along at all, is the story and its moral. Still, the racial radar glows red. “There’s white time in jail and there’s color time in jail,” Tibbs tells a suspect. “The worst kind of time you can do is color time.”
Poitier won best actor, which it took 40 years for another black actor to match (Denzel Washington in “Training Day,” another exaggerated cop opus). Truth be told, this is Steiger’s picture — the malleable Gene Hackman of his day.