Saturday 1 August 2015

Movie Review: The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

A frothy southern drama, The Long, Hot Summer is a traditional tale of the disruptive outsider creating mayhem in the prevailing dynamics of a sleepy small town. With a hot summer exposing raw zeal, the film serves up rampaging personal agendas.

Ben Quick (Paul Newman) is young, handsome, and carrying a reputation as a troublemaker. Barns seem to go up in flames whenever he is involved in a dispute. After being kicked out of his previous town under a cloud of suspicion but no evidence of wrong doing, Quick arrives in Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi, a hamlet dominated by the Varner family. Will Varner (Orson Welles) is the gruff patriarch, a domineering man who owns all the businesses in town.

But Will's health is not what it used to be, and he is eager to impose his will on his family while he still can. His son Jody (Anthony Franciosa) is supposed to be taking over the family empire, but Will doesn't believe that Jody is up to the task. Jody's favourite pastime is sex with his lusciously flirty wife Eula (Lee Remick), but she is still not pregnant, a fact that does not please Will, who is desperate for descendants. Jody's sister Clara (Joanne Woodward) is not yet married, and time is ticking. She has a tentative suitor in the shape of neighbour Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson), but Alan is a weak man living under the thumb of his widowed mother.

Ben's arrival acts as a stir stick within the Varner family. Will sizes up Ben and quickly designates him as more worthy than Jody of inheriting the Varner businesses. He also considers Ben as a potentially good and virile husband for Clara. Naturally, Jody is not at all pleased at being usurped, while Clara is caught between lusting after Ben and being repulsed by his naked aggressiveness.

Directed by Martin Ritt, The Long, Hot Summer is an adaptation and merging of three works by William Faulkner. The final product is very much in the mold of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, with a large man ruling the roost and having to deal with under-performing offspring.

The Long, Hot Summer is almost impossible not to like. The characters are very much the focus of the film, and there are enough issues in the lives of Will, Jody, Clara and Eula to keep the tension crackling and the emotions boiling. The introduction of Ben Quick into the mix just raises the temperature of an already hot summer by a few degrees, and he is the tipping point as suddenly all plans are disrupted. Jody's future viability is in doubt, Clara's endless wait for Alan is placed under the constraints of a hunky alternative, and Will drives hard towards outcomes that first and foremost serve his legacy.

Ritt keeps it all under control, and the film unfolds with surprising efficiency. The collisions between long-held expectations and new realities are handled with a deft touch. The scenes are relatively compact, the drama moves along at a brisk pace despite the high heat and buckets of sweat. Ritt creates a well-defined small town milieu where the rules are pretty clear until outside forces shake the fine balance, and the future suddenly veers into unknown directions riding on scandal and humiliation.

The cast deserves plenty of credit, as Ritt puts to good use former students of the Actors' Studio and they deliver with verve. Newman is unrestrained and allows Quick to unleash his blunt ambitions to earn a piece of Will's business and chip away at Clara's restraint. Welles matches Newman, and Will's conniving mix of worldly experience and coercive manipulation finds the perfect partner in Ben's youthful combativeness.

Woodward and Franciosa bring plenty of energy into their roles, and both convince as Will's offspring, sharing characteristics with their father but not the whole package. Clara is as determined as Will, but much more circumspect, while Jody tries to be a cut-throat wheeler and dealer but lacks his father's ruthless steeliness. Lee Remick's role as Eula is underwritten, and she can't do much with the young sexpot wife who is starting to awaken to her husband's lack of substance. Angela Lansbury has a relatively small turn as an inn keeper still hoping to melt Will's heart into a late second marriage.

While it builds up plenty of sweltering heat, The Long, Hot Summer does settle for an ending that tilts towards too tidy. The fires do rage, but the resolutions and reconciliations are less than consistent with the previously expressed burning desires. Regardless, the Varner family is forever changed by Ben Quick. Not necessarily better or worse, just less burdened by pretense.

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