The year 1967 marked the high point of Sidney Poitier's screen career. He starred in three highly acclaimed box office hits: "To Sir, With Love", "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "In the Heat of the Night". The fact that Poitier did not score a Best Actor Oscar nomination that year had less to do with societal prejudices (he had already won an Oscar) than the fact that he was competing with himself and split the voter's choices for his best performance. "In the Heat of the Night" did win the Best Picture Oscar and immortalized Poitier's performance as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective who finds himself assigned to assist a redneck sheriff (Rod Steiger, who did win the Oscar that year for his performance in this film) in a town in the deep south that has experienced a grisly unsolved murder. When Steiger's character, resentful for having to work with a black man, refers to Tibbs as "boy" and asks what they call him back in Philadelphia, he replies "They call me Mister Tibbs!", thereby uttering what would become one of the cinema's most iconic lines of dialogue. In the film, Poitier plays Tibbs as a man of mystery. Little is unveiled about his personal life, which adds immeasurably to his mystique. He proves to be highly intelligent, logical and courageous, though refreshingly, not immune from making mistakes and misjudgments. The reaction to the movie was so good that, Hollywood being Hollywood, United Artists became convinced that Tibbs could be brought back to star in a "tentpole" series of crime thrillers. Kino Lorber has released both sequels to "In the Heat of the Night" as Blu-ray editions.
First up is the 1970 release, "The Call me MISTER Tibbs!" Aside from Poitier's commanding presence as the same character, there is virtually no connection between this Virgil Tibbs and the one seen in the previous film. The screenplay by Alan Trustman, who wrote the winners "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Bullitt", softens the Tibbs character to the point that he resembles one of those unthreatening TV gumshoes. When we first see him, he is now in the San Francisco Police Department, though Trustman doesn't provide even a single line of dialogue to explain how he got there. He's apparently been there for some time, too, because Tibbs has suddenly acquired a wife (Barbara McNair) and a young son and daughter. The movie opens with the brutal murder of a call girl who lived in a pricey apartment. Evidence points to Tibbs' old friend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau), a firebrand street preacher and activist who enjoys a wide following and who is galvanizing the community to vote in a politically controversial referendum. Sharpe professes his innocence and Tibbs sets out to acquit him and find the real killer. The trail quickly leads to a confusing mix of motley characters and red herrings, among them Anthony Zerbe and Ed Asner. Poitier is never less than impressive even when playing a watered-down version of a once gritty character. However, his impact is diminished by the sappy screenplay which allocates an abundance of time showing Tibbs dealing with day-to-day family living. He flirts with his wife and offers life lessons to his son that border on the extremes of political incorrectness. When he catches the lad smoking, Tibbs decides to teach the pre-teen a lesson by inviting him to join him in smoking Churchill cigars and drinking some scotch. (Most of our dads would probably have employed methods that were slightly more "conventional".) This domestic gibberish reduces the character of Tibbs to a big screen version of Brian Keith's Uncle Bill from the "Family Affair" TV series. Director Gordon Douglas, normally very underrated, handles the pedantic script in a pedantic manner, tossing in a few impressive action scenes including one in which Poitier chases Zerbe on foot seemingly through half of San Francisco in the movie's best sequence. The scenes between Poitier and Landau bristle with fine acting but they only share a limited amount of screen time. Quincy Jones provides a lively, funky jazz score but the film never rises above the level of mediocrity.
Poitier returned to the screen for the last time as Virgil Tibbs in 1971 in "The Organization". Compared to the previous outing, this one is superior on most levels. The script by James R. Webb is just as confusing but there is a grittiness to the production and the character of Tibbs is toughened up a bit. Thankfully, the scenes of his home life with wife and kids are kept to a minimum. The film, well directed by Don Medford (his final production), begins with an inspired caper in which a group of masked men stage an audacious and elaborate infiltration of an office building owned by some shady mob characters. They abscond with millions in cocaine. Tibbs is assigned to the case and is shocked when the culprits secretly approach him and admit they stole the drugs. Turns out they are community activists who wanted to prevent the cocaine from hitting the streets. However, they want Tibbs to know that they did not commit a murder that occurred on the premises of the office. They claim someone else did the dirty deed and is trying to pin it on them. Tibbs believes their story and goes against department protocols by keeping the information secret from his superiors while he works with the activists to crack the case. At some point the plot became so tangled that I gave up trying to figure out who was who and just sat back to enjoy the mayhem. Tibbs' withholding of information from the police department backfires on him and he ends up being suspended from the force. Predictably, he goes rogue in order to take on organized crime figures who are trying to get the drugs back. "The Organization" is fairly good Seventies cop fare capped off by a lengthy action sequence imaginatively set in a subway tunnel that is under construction. The supporting cast is impressive and includes reliable Sheree North, scruffy Allen Garfield and up-and-comers Raul Julia, Ron O'Neal and a very brief appearances by Max Gail and Damon Wilson. Barbara McNair returns as Mrs. Tibbs but her sole function is to provide attractive window dressing. Gil Melle provides a hip jazz score.
The Kino Lorber Blu-rays look very good indeed. Bonus extras on both releases consist of the original trailers for the three Tibbs films.
(This article has been updated to correct the music credit for "The Organization". The composer was Gil Melle. We appreciate the correction from eagle-eyed reader Naresh Putra).