The Long, Hot Summer (1958)
“NOTHING – BUT NOTHING !…WILL BE WITHHELD!…when this searing expose of this Southern family comes boldly to the screen!”
Director: Martin Ritt
Cast: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa
Synopsis: Accused barn burner and con man Ben Quick arrives in a small Mississippi town and quickly ingratiates himself with its richest family, the Varners.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
With its sultry Southern atmosphere and talky screenplay, The Long, Hot Summer has the flavour of a Tennessee Williams’ adaptation about it, although it’s actually based on a couple of William Faulkner short stories and a novel (The Hamlet, Barn Burning, and Spotted Horses). There seemed to be a spate of these sort of movies in the late 1950s, dialogue-heavy dramas set amongst the wealthy denizens of the Deep South, playing out their mind games against a backdrop of a simmering, oppressive Southern heat. This one, scripted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., clearly takes its inspiration from Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Orson Welles’ Will Varner a less than subtle substitute for that play’s Big Daddy Pollitt. But although being a copy of something more substantial — the plot and characters in The Long, Hot Summer bear little to no resemblance to those found in their source material — Martin Ritt’s comeback movie after years in the wilderness following accusations of Communist sympathies provides a surprisingly watchable melodrama featuring strong central performances.
Expelled from a nameless town on suspicion of barn burning (a charge for which no proof is forthcoming), Ben Quick (Paul Newman) hitches a ride with Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) and her sister-in-law, Eula (a delicious-looking Lee Remick) to Frenchman’s Bend in Mississippi. The relationship between Quick and Clara is antagonistic from the outset (so you know what that means…), but despite this lukewarm welcome, he rents a farmhouse and land from Eula’s husband, Jody (Anthony Franciosa). Jody’s father, the larger-than-life, domineering Will Varner (Orson Welles) is furious when he learns of this after his discharge from hospital. Quick’s is a name well known in those parts, and it’s well-known for his family’s reputation as destroyers of other men’s properties. But when Varner visits Quick’s run-down shack he sees a lot of his younger self in the man, who possesses the drive and ambition his own son lacks.
Jody’s not the only one who’s a disappointment to Varner. His daughter, Clara, has been seeing wealthy local man Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson) for years, but he shows no sign of asking her to marry him, much to Varner’s frustration. Clara is also frustrated by Alan’s reticence, but hides her feelings much better than her father — although it doesn’t take long for Quick to work out how the land lies. Uncaring of his daughter’s objections, Varner insists that she will wed Quick if she’s unable to ensnare Alan. For his part, Quick is willing; enticed initially by the Varners’ wealth, he soon begins to see a previously unsuspected spirit in Clara that he finds appealing. But Clara remains stubbornly resistant to his charms, while Jody grows increasingly desperate over the way Quick is undermining his position in the family…
There’s not much action of any description in The Long, Hot Summer, so if that’s your thing you’re better off looking elsewhere. The story is mostly told not by the actions of the characters, but by their words. At times they speak like poets, which means their words sound nice but hardly realistic. And yet there’s a hard core to the soft words, often hidden warnings of selfish intent. The spirited cast deliver their lines with fire and conviction, belying the reportedly troubled shoot. Even Welles, who frequently clashed with Ritt on set, and complained about pretty much everything during filming, delivers a beguiling performance. Some of his lines are nearly unintelligible, but their delivery is somehow in keeping with this big, bellicose man whose world must be perfectly ordered in the way he wishes it to be. He doesn’t care if you didn’t hear what he said — you should have been listening better… It’s strange to think that only 17 years had passed since he burst onto the movie scene, a fresh-faced 26-year-old, in Citizen Kane. Here, he’s playing a man of 61, and looks every inch the part. He growls and snarls his lines, and the words he shares with other cast members are more like duels than conversations.
The cast’s strong performance disguises for a while the prosaic, soap-opera qualities of the storyline, but can do nothing to redeem a final reel that is horribly out of step with the rest of the movie. It’s almost inconceivable that, after so many years of growing disappointment with Jody, Will Varner could have such a sudden, revelatory change of heart about his son. Earlier in the movie he raged against the presence of Ben Quick on his land because of his reputation as a barn burner, but when the same act is carried out by his son he sees it as a sign of redemption? But it gets worse, with all three problematic relationships within the story resolved almost simultaneously in the final scenes, leaving all involved giggling inanely like poorly-drawn characters from a bad TV sit-com. The ending serves as nothing more than a gross disservice to the rest of the movie, and any message the writers might have intended is destroyed by this ‘happy ever after’ surrender to Hollywood convention, leaving the viewer feeling cheated.
(Reviewed 9th December 2013)