Our review of Paul Newman: The Tribute Collection, published October 12th, 2009, is also available.
"Miss Clara, you slam the door at a man's face before he even knocks on it."—Ben Quick
I don't know if The Long, Hot Summer is considered a classic. It features Oscar winners Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Orson Welles. The backbone of the plot is a series of short stories by Faulkner, one of America's premiere writers. The dialogue, cinematography, and direction give the whole affair a sophisticated theatrical feel. I don't know if The Long, Hot Summer is considered a classic, but since it looks like one, acts like one, and feels like one, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Facts of the Case
Ben Quick (Paul Newman) is a marked man with a reputation for barn burning. He moves from one town to the next trying to get by. He hops off a barge near the bank of the Mississippi River and hitches a ride from two young ladies on their way to town.
The town is Frenchman's Bend, featuring Varner's Bank, Varner's Restaurant, Varner's General Store, and Varner Prison. The ladies are Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) and Eula Varner (Lee Remick), daughter and daughter-in-law of town patriarch Will Varner (Orson Welles). The atmosphere is none too welcoming, but Ben decides to stake out a living in Frenchman's Bend. He visits the Varner mansion and takes over a tenement farm offered by Will's son Jody (Anthony Franciosa).
When Will Varner returns from a protracted hospital stay, he is none too pleased to discover a barn burner in his town. After verbally abusing his son and daughter and ogling his nubile daughter-in-law, Will drives out to the farm to have a man-to-man with Ben Quick. Will decides that Ben is a potential enemy, but also a possible asset. He offers Ben a more distinguished position in the Varner monopoly.
Ben proves himself a ruthless businessman, and Will promotes him to Jody's position at the general store. This favoritism enrages Jody and nettles Clara. Is her cool attitude towards Ben disdain or carefully controlled desire? More importantly, will escalating tension within Frenchman's Bend render the point moot?
It doesn't take long to get into The Long, Hot Summer. The film opens with a burning barn and a cool Newman. The banter between Ben and the Varner ladies is witty, edgy, and laced with subtle threat. Characters, agendas, and conflicts are immediately established.
It is easy to establish conflict, another matter entirely to maintain tension. The Long, Hot Summer moves at a deceptively languid pace, but never feels slow. Sharply provocative dialogue and the innuendo of danger enhance every scene.
Sexual innuendo is rampant as well, with subtle and unsubtle come-ons, harassment, and lust. It is amazing how much heat the film generates without nudity or sexual contact. Eula Varner, portrayed by Lee Remick, is red hot and sinfully lusty. She is no good for them, yet entices men with her flippant familiarity. On the flip side of the coin is Joanne Woodward's Clara: collected and severe but keenly aware of her own yearnings. When confronted with the two, Ben cannot resist the challenge of seducing Clara.
Characters talk and talk some more, but the conversations are the highlights of The Long, Hot Summer. Of particular note is Welles' careless verbal abuse of everyone around him. He is a coarse bull of a man with no regard for subtlety or emotion. Equally juicy are Woodward and Newman's linguistic barbs, penetrating to the heart of their characters' emotions. At one point, the gloves come off and they have it out, causing the audience to cringe within their seats. Their chemistry was undoubtedly enhanced by their off screen attraction for each other, an attraction powerful enough to support decades of married bliss.
The discourse would be nothing without powerful characters. Though The Long, Hot Summer invokes certain stereotypes to get points across, the characters feel authentic. You can sense vitality beyond the screen, as though you were peeking into a brief window of their lives. It is easy to imagine yourself a guest lounging on the Varner porch, watching your eccentric neighbors provoke and harass each other.
Fox has done this fine film justice with the DVD treatment. The Long, Hot Summer is 45 years old and was an early work of color cinematography. As such, the colors and clarity of the print are impressive. There were occasional nicks and scratches in the film, but nothing worse than some current film transfers possess. There are flaws in the picture, of course. The color saturation is uneven from scene to scene, as are the black levels. Certain outdoor scenes are overcast. The aspect ratio periodically distorts, particularly in close-ups, causing heads to appear squashed like footballs. Film grain is sometimes prominent. What does all this amount to? Not much. The Long, Hot Summer was clearly handled with expertise in 1958, and the picture has been given a boost through expert remastering. It looks dated but very clean.
The sound is surprisingly well integrated. The Foley effects are perfectly matched to the action onscreen, and seemed quite modern. The soundtrack is an understated studio effort, but fits the picture. Music and dialogue are sometimes harsh or unclear, particularly Orson Welles' lines. One can't help but suspect Orson as the primary culprit.
The extras package isn't overwhelming, but does shed light on the situational factors that surrounded the production. Both of the main extras are informative, but I give the edge to AMC Backstory. This slickly produced entertainment piece was direct and covered a lot of ground. Newman Cinema rounds out the extras. What is Newman Cinema? A bunch of trailers for classic Paul Newman movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I wrote in the Opening Statement, I don't know if The Long, Hot Summer is a classic. There must be some problems with it for there to be any doubt.
Some claim that Orson Welles' career was on the decline when this picture was made. He was a bear to work with, his lines are incomprehensible, and his makeup keeps running and splotching in the heat. In short, he is somewhat distasteful to watch. Orson had a persona that affected a lot of people, critics included. I found his performance riveting and energetic, as remorseless as the man himself was claimed to be. But some of the mystique is gone when you see his enormous bulk sweating in discomfort.
Clara was so restrained and severe that I thought Ben was harassing her or at best humoring her presence. It wasn't until the middle of the picture that I realized he truly had feelings for her. I mistook the atmosphere of tension and menace to mean dehumanized relationships. But postmodern interpretations don't apply to this piece, which often operates at face value.
The biggest complaint I have is the ending, which has been roundly criticized. The first three fourths of the film builds escalating tension that threatens to plow right through the screen into your living room. Certain characters are so conflicted and unredeemable that you steel yourself for brutal violence the entire time. There is a point around the climax where motivations, events, and personalities radically shift into happy-make-believe land. Without giving too much away, the ending is not faithful to the characterizations and violates the cause-effect contract. It was a cop out; an unconvincingly shoehorned happy ending.
Despite some fumbles, The Long, Hot Summer is an involving and multi-layered drama. It has been compared to a Tennessee Williams play. I can see the correlation, but Faulkner's darkness and depravity are evident as well. Newman, Woodward, and Welles form a daunting thicket of theatrical prowess, entangling us with scrappy sparks. If you want invigorating dialogue, understated antics, and motivationally-based drama, The Long, Hot Summer is for you. It's classic appeal grants rewatchability, making this a good candidate for purchase.
Upon due reflection, this court sees fit to release all parties. This summer has been long enough and hot enough to adequately punish any minor misdeeds. His honor would like to retain Eula Varner for further questioning. Case dismissed!
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