The 2014 Academy Award nominations are announced next week so awards fever will be bubbling nicely in a few days. A perfect time then to consider the second of our award-winning stories to bring a little winter cheer. That story is In the Heat of the Night by John Ball (1965). It is the first of a series of novels to feature the police detective Virgil Tibbs who would so memorably be brought to life by Sidney Poitier in Norman Jewison’s Best Picture-winning film adaptation in 1967. The film spawned two sequels and also a television series, such was its popularity.
John Ball was born in Schenectady, NY in 1911 and moved to Milwaukee as a small child. Before becoming a novelist he worked as a commercial pilot, a music critic and a public relations director. In his spare time, he was a black belt in aikido, a trait he gave to Virgil Tibbs, and an accomplished magician. When he finally settled as a writer he embarked on a career that would produce over 30 books which would be translated into over a dozen languages. In the Heat of the Night was his first book and it won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, an organisation that he would be vice president of at the time of his death in 1988 having also been a founder member of the Sherlock Holmes Society in Los Angeles.
Virgil Tibbs was his most famous creation and the character was inspired, according to Ball’s wife, by a story about a witness to a traffic accident who was not called to testify in court on account of his being black and therefore incompetent. Ball’s rage at hearing this manifested itself in an iconic novel about a black detective confronting white bigotry in the Deep South. In the novel, Virgil Tibbs is less assertive as the character that Poitier portrays. Ball’s character is more measured, more humble and perhaps more accepting of the way in which blacks were expected to behave. This makes the novel much more of a classic whodunit murder mystery than the film. This fact is often overlooked and reading it today the ending is still unexpected and extremely well crafted. The film version focuses more on the relationship between Tibbs and the local Chief of Police Bill Gillespie. It is in its focus on this relationship that the biggest, and the most memorable difference between novel and film is to be found.
And what a difference. It became known as the slap heard round the world. When Virgil Tibbs accuses Endicott, a white, bigoted cotton plantation owner of murder, Endicott slaps the detective. What followed next is not in the novel and it shocked audiences, both black and white, across the world. Virgil Tibbs slaps Endicott back. Much harder. The cinematic and indeed social importance of that slap cannot be underestimated. To see a black man physically strike back and maintain the upper hand was unheard of and, over 45 years later, this genuinely brave piece of film-making still has the capacity to shock. Decades of deference eradicated in a single slap. The film won five Academy Awards including Best Actor for Rod Steiger as Bill Gillespie. I find two things about this extraordinary. Firstly that Steiger’s fellow nominees included Paul Newman for Cool Hand Luke, Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate, Warren Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde and Spencer Tracey for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Secondly, Poitier was not among them.
As a novel In the Heat of the Night is outstanding. As a film it is groundbreaking. As well as changing the way in which black people were portrayed it also changed the way that black actors were filmed. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, fresh from an Academy Award for his work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? used different lighting for Sidney Poitier as he believed that standard lighting did not adequately represent the features of a black actor. Never before had this been done.
Both the novel and the film deserves all their plaudits. I’ll end with what was arguably Poitier’s most famous line.
Gillespie: Well, you’re pretty sure of yourself, ain’t you, Virgil? Virgil, that’s a funny name for a nigger boy to come from Philadelphia. What do you they call you up there?
Virgil: They call me ‘Mister’ Tibbs.