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if, like me, you didn't realize that they made not one but two sequels to the critically-acclaimed masterpiece, in the heat of the night, you might assume that those sequels must be pretty bad and should be skipped. well, you wouldn't be completely wrong...but wait! there's another reason to watch this besides poitier reprising his character: it's a surprising precursor to the blaxploitation films of the '70s!
you usually hear that the genre started in '71 with shaft and/or the amazingly-titled sweet sweetback's baadasssss song. but mister tibbs here beat them by a year and i want to make a case for him. i came in expecting that this might be similar to poitier's '67 role as the restrained and reasonable, take-no-shit detective. but not only is there a very different vibe to the affair, there's also no actor of rod steiger's quality for poitier to play off of. the result is that his now-lieutenant can seem a bit dull at times...before careening wildly into blaxploitation territory!
the first thing you'll notice is that instead of the south, we're in 1960's san francisco, and the pre-tech-boom city looks grimy and in the throes of a hippy revolution. then you'll catch that the soundtrack is by the legendary quincy jones, who is tearing it up with fast jazz and danceable funk here! the film quickly goes to a sex scene and makes sure to get those titties on the screen in the first 5 minutes to hook the audience (though you'll never see nudity after that). the music, sex, swearing, and violence are all there right up front like a classic exploitation film. but then oddly it settles on poitier, who tries to ground the character a bit in normal detection-driven policework. it's a part of the film that doesn't really stand out.
the film is also full of actors people nowadays probably wouldn't recognize, must of them not doing anything remarkable here. but i always get interested in looking up these actors who had long resumes that i know little about. the chief antagonist here is anthony zerbe, who seems to have made a career out of being cast more for his sleazy vibe than for his acting ability. the chief suspect in the murder case is martin landau, but not the landau i grew up with. he's young here, and still working on his craft...he doesn't really go toe-to-toe with poitier. the chief "witness" tibbs is looking for is played by juano hernandez, whose performance as an older janitor somewhere on the spectrum is something i'm still not sure how i feel about. sadly, this was his last role of a long career...he died of a brain hemorrhage later the same year. the legendary ed asner has a bit part where he gets to look kind of goofy in a car chase (though the over-shoulder shots with the stuntman instead of him are pretty gripping!)
there are a couple of women in the film that fare better, though being women of color, they didn't get opportunities to really have big acting roles in the 70s. barbara mcnair plays tibbs' wife, and i didn't realize she was quite a famous singer and tv performer at the time. and beverly todd plays puff, the prostitute who wants to do the right thing. even though she's only got a few of them, her scenes with poitier are electric, and the dialogue between them is charged, feeling like it could jump off in different directions at any time. unfortunately, they're some of the few scenes in the movie that feel that way. there are a couple of foot chases and crowd scenes where director gordon douglas also manages to create some tension with interesting camera placement and by filming on location. but he was a director at the end of his career, and most of the movie is shot on obvious stages and feels mediocre. even many of the chases are undercut by really upbeat, dancy music from jones... you just can't get nervous when the jams are that funky!
there seem to be attempts to keep the audience guessing or make tibbs a more interesting character by throwing in a surprise family and personal drama. this is a sequel, but he's got a son that seems 10-12 years old, whereas in the previous film he said he wasn't even married! he often comes off pretty stoic, but they want you to know that this guy still takes no shit...and to be clear, he likes to fuck. every time he comes home, he's either slapping barbara mcnair's ass, getting her to greet him with a beer and then grabbing her ass, or just straight undressing her in front of his sleeping daughter. all those days of turning down ho after ho have got him cranked. and then he's got this son who's rebellious for no discernible reason, giving us the opportunity to see that no, tibbs is not perfect. he's actually a pretty shitty father, if not a shitty husband, or a shitty friend, or a shitty coworker. anybody triggered by kid-slapping better fast forward those bits.
while he's not quite as swinging as superfly or as tough as shaft or as badassss as sweetback or as pimpin as the mack, mister tibbs is still an early case of a black man getting to be an action hero, and unlike in his previous film, he gets to ditch the honkeys and control his own case. he gets a funk soundtrack, sleazy gangsters, hos coming on to him, and some grimy inner city environs. unfortunately, this still plays it straight too much of the time to be as fun as those other films, but i'm holding out hope that the sequel ("the organization") will lean heavier into those elements and just give up on being a serious drama like in the heat of the night. this one tries and just falls between two stools.
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