by Luke Thomas
Taking inspiration from a variety of Mississippi based short stories and novels from American laureate William Faulkner, The Long, Hot Summer is something of an oddity amongst similar Hollywood features that were produced during the 1950s. Despite boasting a series of gorgeous locations and an impressive cast, including the relative newcomer and later superstar Paul Newman and veteran cinema giant Orson Welles, the film never managed to meet the success and longevity of similar productions, and has fallen into relative obscurity in recent years. This may be due to the number of problems that dodged the cast and crew throughout production, particularly the conflicts between Welles and director Martin Ritt, that arose mainly due to Welles’ famous temperament and his refusal to learn lines, wishing for them to be “dubbed in afterwards”. This lead to Welles stating in an interview that he “hated making Long Hot Summer” and that he’d “seldom been as unhappy in a picture”. With the notoriety that plagued the picture in its initial run, it is interesting to view this now the dust has cleared as a modern viewer and see how this obscure flick holds up compared to the classics of this era, with this brand new DVD release.
The film opens with an impressive shot of a barn slowly engulfing in flames, cutting to a court case in an unnamed southern town, with the accused barn burner and vagabond Ben Quick (Paul Newman) being expelled from the community despite a lack of evidence. This leads to Ben’s arrival in the quaint Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi, where the rest of the film takes place, primarily focusing on Quick integrating himself into the wealthy Varner family, lead by the patriarchal Will Varner (Orson Welles). Whilst initially dismissing Quick due to the strong allegations against his name, Will begins to see a younger version of himself in the headstrong and ambitious young man, and has him take up various jobs for the family, including running the general store and selling off a bunch of wild horses to the townsfolk. Will also has ulterior motives for taking Ben under his wing, in the hopes that he will produce some heirs by marrying his daughter Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) a school teacher in the town who has spent the last 5 years seeing Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson), a genteel blue blooded mama’s boy. The affection and respect that Will feels for Ben causes conflict throughout the film between Ben and Jody Varner (Anthony Franciosa), Will’s son and an ambitionless, work-shy young man who desperately craves the attention of his father.
The film looks gorgeous, from the burning barn opening to the mansion exterior final shot. LaShelle’s cinematography in the film is inspired, with the choice to shoot on location really helping to evoke the mood of the narrative and highlight the quaint beauty of South America during this era. The mise en scene is also wonderful, particularly in the array of impressive costumes that really suck you into the period. The soundtrack, although a little cheesy at the beginning, helps hold the film together with a tense, jazz score that, like the costumes, manages to evoke the feel of 1950s America. Whilst it does sometimes slip into melodrama the score on the most part remains pretty consistent, and really shows a genuine musical understanding of the deep south.
The acting for the majority of the cast is impressive if not particularly extraordinary, with Newman being the highlight in his effortless characterisation of the anti-hero Ben Quick, always sporting a cocksure grin and a spot on southern accent, but hiding deep troubles behind his penetrating, blue eyes. Even in such an early performance it is evident what a fantastic leading man he would become in the world of cinema, with an emotionally charged monologue about his father towards the end of the film being a particular highlight, revealing a softer side to what could have been a stock, transgressive rebel. Also deserving of praise is Joanne Woodward, who brings a lot more to what could have been a fairly by-the-books love interest, instead making Clara a strong and dynamic character to root for. Whilst the romance between Ben and Clara is very two dimensional, with the progression from hatred to love never feeling particularly natural and only shifting in the final act of the film, the natural chemistry between the real-life couple is a pleasure to watch and certainly helps make up for the poor writing that went into the development of the relationship. The supporting cast are also great, particularly Anthony Franciosa as Jody, who brings a lot of nuances to the downtrodden son growing more and more desperate to be validated whilst up against the alpha-male figure of Ben Quick.
It is unfortunate that the weakest performance in the film comes from arguably its biggest name. Welles mumbles through his lines and hams up a pretty crappy performance. Will Varner could have easily been an interesting father character, written to be so terrified of losing his family’s name and identity that he inadvertently and ironically alienates the very family that he works so hard to preserve, a sort of hillbilly Tywin Lannister. A character of this callibre with a more villainous and dastardly actor behind it would have certainly given the film the dramatic and emotional edge that it really needed. Unfortunately, what we get instead is a horrible mixture of Foghorn Leghorn, Boss Hogg and Sheriff Buford T. Justice without the self-aware humour, with the inaudible dialogue and awful makeup really hindering the effect of the otherwise very grounded drama.
In terms of narrative the story always seems to be leading to a particular climax or dramatic confrontation, but never manages to find its way there, instead acting infuriatingly formulaic. A more interesting film would shift the relationship between Ben and Will towards the middle of the second act and have them hate each other towards the end of the story. That would have made for a more interesting arc for both of them, and with this added conflict would make for a more memorable story in the long run. Likewise with the romance between Ben and Clara, the development of warmth and love between the two could have been handled far better, with very few tender moments being given between the two of them, which makes their eventual romance feel non-existent. In the beginning this makes sense, with the marriage being arranged and Clara wanting no part of it, but leading to genuine love a little earlier would have been more interesting and would have helped the audience remain emotionally invested in the story.
What the film really seems to be lacking in the end is that final kick or a significantly interesting element that keeps you hooked. It is neither funny like The Importance of Being Earnest, nor an interesting look at human nature like 12 Angry Men, and it’s not emotionally devastating like Vertigo. Ben Quick is certainly no Atticus Finch; Paul Newman doesn’t arrive in town having to fight against social prejudices or the villainous local land barons, and he doesn’t uncover a devastating secret being hidden within the community. There is no social message, no deconstruction of the negative influence of wealth and no exploration of any negative social attitudes of the American South. No, the final result is an admittedly charming and well made film, but unfortunately lacking a particularly memorable or interesting story.
Dir: Martin Ritt
Scr: William Faulkner, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.
Cast: Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa
Prd: Jerry Wald
DOP: Joseph LaShelle
Music: Alex North
Country: United States
Run Time: 115 Minutes
The Long, Hot Summer is available on DVD now.