Sidney Poitier did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, for portraying Detective Virgil Tibbs in In The Heat of the Night.
Despite his lack of recognition In The Heat of the Night is perhaps one of Poitier, if not most, iconic roles as Mr. Tibbs a black detective from Philadelphia who finds himself forced into solving a homicide in a racist town. Everything seems set out to make this a memorable role from the outset with the compelling situation he's in, that unique name of his, and even the rather snappy way in which he is dressed. Although it is in the case of most of his roles, starting all the way back with No Way Out as doctor dealing with a prejudiced Richard Widmark, Poitier's character doesn't take any flack from any racist this probably the time where his character was perhaps the most fervent about it. It was most often the case that Poitier would ease into this discontent by first being his usual extremely charming self, this time though Poitier actually begins with a harder edge which makes is fitting since the first thing that happens to Tibbs is that he is charged with the murder himself.
Poitier despite being somewhat more outwardly defiant in this one Poitier still carries himself in his usual classy dignified fashion. Poitier here is the master of frankly the refined anger as he manages to bring such an intensity in Tibbs's objection to his treatment by the police chief Gillespie (Steiger) and his men. Poitier barely even has to raise his voice to still be a palatable force of passion, and when he does raise his voice such as with his famous "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" it is quite powerful. Poitier interestingly doesn't fall upon his substantial charm all that often with this performance, almost holding it as a secret weapon in the reserved persona of Tibbs. Poitier only brings it out in very particular situations when Tibbs needs to derive information out of someone. Poitier very effectively uses his charm in these moments showing it as almost a strategy to make Tibbs instantly likable to the person he's trying to get the information from.
It is no surprise that Poitier went to reprise Tibbs two more times in sequels, although apparently far less successful films in every regard. Poitier has such a commanding presence with Tibbs and he makes for a consistently compelling lead here. Poitier is terrific by realizing Tibbs's method in such an eloquent and precise manner that is always interesting to watch. Poitier is quite good at carrying the film so well, as he's always so good at carrying film yet at the same time he manages to convey Tibbs's particular method of solving the crime. Poitier conveys the methodical nature of Tibbs deductions and makes every revelation he discovers well earned. There is only one moment where Poitier drops this and that is when confronting a known racist who has a motive for the murder. Poitier earns this especially emotional moment, and far from his most calculating, by portraying it as very much the gut reaction of man being forced to deal with an extremely racist individual with a smug sense of entitlement.
As great as Poitier is alone what really makes this performance standout is the way he works with Steiger throughout the film. Both are in top form here as they both are equally brilliant in realizing their characters. They are especially good because In the Heat of the Night is plot driven yet neither Tibbs nor Gillespie ever feel like characters just there to move through the plot. They realize them as fascinating men all on their own and they even come even more to life in their various conflicts during the film. The way the two go from outwardly aggressive to one another to an eventual mutual respect is one of the best elements of the film and it only really works because of Poitier and Steiger. There is not a single moment where the two agree to be friends or to even stop hating each other. There is just a rather slow understanding the two actors build so naturally from scene to scene that they make the transformation in both men not only believable but quite poignant in the end.