After a small town witnesses their worst murder yet, the sheriff begins to investigate but is joined by a black policeman from the city. The two do not get on with, this being the south, the sheriff being a racist and a bigot. Somehow they both manage to overcome their differences to find the murderer.
With a fistful of Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor), a couple of sequels and a twenty-years-later remake and spin-off TV series, this adaptation of John Balls lean thriller obviously qualifies as more than just another small town murder mystery. Cool big city cop Sidney Poitier happens to be caught in a bigoted Southern town when a bizarre murder is committed and, after tussling with the local good ole boy Sheriff (Rod Steiger), finds himself drafted in to help out with the investigation.
The twist-filled storyline, which digs up nasty secrets all over the show and offers a satisfying range of suspicious suspects and a truly disgusting killer, remains gripping, and the excellent, understated lead performances don't harp on the racial angle in that embarassing fashion which makes so many Socialy Significant films instantly dated. Warren Oates, Scott Wilson, Lee Grant and (especially) Anthony James, offer sterling support, and there's a cool jazz score from Quincy Jones. Probably Norman Jewison's best picture.
Understandably In the Heat of the Night cleaned up at that year's Oscars, with standout performances from Poitier, in particular and considering the topic of the film seemed ironic he didn't win best actor. Sadly instead he went on to star in the not-very-good sequels.