The Film: They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970)
The Principals: Director: Gordon Douglas. Sidney Poitier, Martin Landau, Barbara McNair, Ed Asner
The Plot: Another day, another dead hooker. Except this homicide case lands on the desk of Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), the calm and soft-spoken detective you loved in In the Heat of the Night. This time, he battles not racism, but his own sense of honor and friendship as the accused happens to be Reverend Logan Sharpe (Landau). Sharpe is a political target, and beloved within his community. Was he set up by those who don’t want his amendment to pass? Or is he the killer? And just how quiet can Tibbs keep the investigation, which threatens to boil over at every twist and turn?
Is It Good: It’s…well, it’s no In the Heat of the Night. It’s a by-the-numbers ’70s crime flick, reminiscent of Coogan’s Bluff or the less cool parts of Bullitt. It’s not bad, it’s just forgettable, and a real waste of Poitier’s talent. Is this really the best they could do for Tibbs? Couldn’t they have spun it off into a proper Dirty Harry sort of franchise?
Still, it was an attempt, and it’s refreshing to see an African-American actor who is just your average detective, and not a flashy blaxploitation hero. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, but I imagine there were some 1970s audiences who welcomed seeing a black guy with a wife, two kids, and a suburban house. (Or maybe not, since both Tibbs and its follow-up The Organization bombed.)
And it is a rather funky novelty piece. The youngest moviegoers among us imagine that strained sequels and spin-offs are a product of 21st century moviemaking. Sorry! They’ve always existed, and here’s just one example.
Is It Worth A Look: Sure. There’s a decent car chase, and I think the scenes of Tibbs and his family are really sweet and unique. Most homicide detectives (Callahan, Riggs, Bullitt) are lone wolves, troubled and alienated from humanity. They’re married to their jobs. Tibbs struggles to balance work and family, and there’s a melancholy underpinning to all his interactions with his son. He seems to be trying to impress upon him how hard life has been for the men of their family, and how he needs to appreciate his life and advantages…but he doesn’t really want to come out and put that on the kid.
If you watch it, you can join me in my world of fanfic where Harry Callahan, Mr. Tibbs and Bullitt all work a massive case together in San Fransisco. How did these three never meet? They must have! In my mind, Callahan would have gone over to Tibbs’ house for dinner, and had his cold heart melted a little before heading home to his hovel, where he silently turns that photo of his wife away from him again. Both of them would look askance at Bullitt and his sleek leather coats and hot girlfriend, and feel quite old indeed.
Random Cinematic Anecdotes: Despite my glee at the shared San Fransisco universe of the above three men, it’s actually a glaring error in MISTER Tibbs. In the Heat of the Night made it famously clear he was a Philadelphia detective.