Judge Dan Mancini reviews Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's biographical play.
…with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.—Eugene O'Neill, inscription on Long Day's Journey Into Night
Completed in 1940, Long Day's Journey Into Night was the first in what Eugene O'Neill intended as a series of nine autobiographical plays. A Touch of the Poet (1942) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943) were the only other plays completed in the cycle, but Long Day's Journey is the one that sticks with us. In writing the play, O'Neill bore so deeply into the experiences of his early adulthood that, once he'd completed it, he told no publishers or producers of its existence, shuffling it away to the keepers of his estate with orders that it only be performed after his death.
Dramatic? Sure, but O'Neill came from a theatrical family. His father, James, was a promising actor until he settled into a long run (over 5,000 performances) as the lead in The Count of Monte Cristo, eschewing artistic challenges and a diversity of roles in favor of the big pay days associated with such a crowd pleaser. His mother, Ella, was from a moneyed family; she hated her husband's touring life and her misguided attempts to squelch her pain and sorrow led to a morphine addiction. O'Neill's older brother, Jamie, followed in their father's footsteps, both as an actor and an alcoholic.
Eugene spent the earliest years of his adulthood as a shiftless bohemian, traveling the world and taking to drink as heavily as his father and brother. It wasn't until tuberculosis forced him into a sanitarium that he set his mind on becoming a playwright.
In Long Day's Journey Into Night, the playwright gives us the minutiae of a single day in the life of O'Neill surrogates, the Tyrones.
Facts of the Case
James Tyrone (Sir Ralph Richardson, Doctor Zhivago) is a wealthy but washed-up stage actor given to drink. His oldest boy, Jamie (Jason Robards, Once Upon a Time in the West), has been a great disappointment to him. An actor himself, Jamie is too enamored of booze and women to focus on making a success of himself. Tyrone's younger son, Edmund (Dean Stockwell, Blue Velvet), is a half-hearted journalist fighting an illness the family silently suspects may be life threatening. Stress over Edmund's illness, and the prospect that he may have to be committed to a sanitarium, has driven Tyrone's wife, Mary (Katharine Hepburn, The African Queen), back to a morphine habit the family thought she'd conquered.
Isolated in their New England summer home, the four Tyrones express their love and loathing for one another as current circumstances bring reminders of their past sins.
Long Day's Journey Into Night is a long, cloistered four-act play, and director Sidney Lumet's (12 Angry Men, Serpico) film adaptation is faithful to both the language and staging. This is not a film that opens up its source, reinventing it as something fundamentally cinematic. O'Neill arranged his work as a series of interactions between the four principal characters, putting them together in nearly every possible combination of pair, trio, and quartet (the only other character to appear onscreen is Cathleen, the Tyrones's maid, and she mainly serves as a sounding board to Mary in one of the picture's crucial scenes). Lumet trims little from O'Neill's long, challenging, and rhythmically precise passages of dialogue, and he organizes the movie in unbroken master shots with a minimum of camera movement. Close-ups are used sparingly, but to powerful effect—Lumet tends to push the camera in only when the actors' performances require that he do so. The end result is a film that is stagy, but appropriately so.
O'Neill is known for stylized dialogue, and the movie is unnaturally verbose, but the characters' long soliloquies often show us as much as they tell us. The playwright brilliantly structured his play so that the surface narrative—one of strife and irritation between the family members over the course of a single day—unfolds in utter simplicity. But the characters' interactions reveal the family's history to us in complex non-linear fashion. For example, the secondary information we glean from a conversation between, say, Edmund and Tryone may give us added insight into previous conversations between Edmund and Mary, and Tyrone and Mary, as well as illuminating a subsequent talk between Edmund and Jamie. In this way, O'Neill establishes the deep interconnectedness of the family. Everything they are has been forged in their lives with one another. Each victimizes and exalts the others, just as each is victimized and exalted.
The family's capacity to swing violently from love to cruelty, the fact they know each others' weaknesses and often exploit them, is the source of the movie's dramatic tension. The length of the speeches and their level of self-awareness would feel like melodrama but for O'Neill's masterful use of language coupled with the fact the Tyrones, by design, are a theatrical bunch. This may not be how my family or yours speaks to one another, but we somehow believe this is business as usual for the bourbon-swilling Tyrones. The piece is also elevated by O'Neill's refusal to sympathize with his surrogate, Edmund, over the other characters. Instead of soap opera solipsism about family dysfunction, the playwright delivers a complex web of mutual victimization that exposes the ugliest aspects of each of the characters while maintaining an unflinching compassion for them all.
Having originated on the stage, Long Day's Journey Into Night is an actor-driven piece, and a particularly challenging one at that because none of the four Tyrones is the star—this is an ensemble film in the truest sense. Ultimately, what makes the movie a success even more than Lumet's firm grasp of the complex material is tour de force performances by all for principals. Had even one of the actors fallen short of excellence, the film would have suffered immeasurably. Jason Robards and a young Dean Stockwell prove capable of standing toe-to-toe with Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson. There's not a hint either was nursed along by the more experienced actors. Indeed, all four won Best Actor prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. Still, if one performer stands ever so slightly above the rest it is Richardson. He's tasked with playing a man who has embellished his life with dramatic flourishes and histrionics, and he does so without being hammy himself. There is a moment in the movie when Edmund rages at spendthrift James for arranging to send him to a public sanitarium because it will be less expensive than a private one. Eyes welling with tears, Richardson delivers a look like he's been slapped in the face. It's a nuanced performance that communicates his pain is rooted in the viciousness and truth of his youngest son's attack, in the violent revelation of a personal flaw he mistakenly believed he'd hidden from those around him. It's a moment of pure acting as powerful as any of O'Neill's dialogue. And, as I said before, Richardson's performance is only slightly better than his fellow actors'.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the movie is a fine piece of work, the DVD is not. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront) shot the picture in black and white, and the DVD presents his work unevenly. The image often fails to achieve pure blacks or whites. The overall sharpness of detail might lead one to assume Kaufman was intentionally after a low-contrast look, except some scenes do achieve deeper blacks. On the plus side, the sources were free of any major damage, and grain is mostly controlled.
The biggest problem with the image, however, is that it has some fairly intrusive compression artifacts. In addition, watching the disc on a standard television is a major annoyance as the transfer is riddled with serious aliasing issues. Fine-line detail shimmers and jumps all over the place.
Information I've been able to dig up indicates the movie was exhibited theatrically at a 1.85:1 ratio. The DVD presents a full screen image that is neither open matte nor pan-and-scan. Overall, compositions look fairly accurate and balanced. If it's true the movie was originally presented in a widescreen format, I'd guess both sides of the image have been slightly cropped on this release (there are a handful of shots—actors partially out of frame on both sides of the screen—that make this seem likely). Personally, I didn't find framing to be much of an issue. Even those scenes where actors are out-of-frame seem in keeping with the story's wrenching psychological instability. They're as likely intentional on Lumet's part as they are a gaffe in the transfer process. In other words, based on the framing on the DVD, I'm not convinced the technical information I found was accurate.
The audio is clean enough, but sounds more like mono than Dolby Surround.
The disc doesn't offer a single extra, which is too bad since even a smattering of biographical information about O'Neill would have had the potential to enrich a viewer's experience of the film.
Great movie. Poor DVD. Still, the technical aspects of the disc aren't a complete disaster (detail is strong), and it's a budget-friendly release. The quality of the writing, direction, and especially the performances are worth the low asking price. Long Day's Journey Into Night deserves better, though.
Sidney Lumet and company are found not guilty. Lions Gate deserves a restraining order.
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