The Long, Hot Summer

Dir: Matrin Ritt, 1958. Starring: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick. Classics.
The Long, Hot Summer

At first glance The Long, Hot Summer looks like some tossed-out Tennessee Williams pages run through a Hollywood blender, but it’s actually a lot more fun then most of Williams’ stiff adaptations. Though, for literary street cred, it’s title card reads William Faulkner’s The Long, Hot Summer, because apparently it’s kinda-sorta, but just barely, based on his novel The Hamlet. It doesn’t come close to the emotional depth of Williams’ or Faulker’s best work, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Directed by Martin Ritt, who would go on to a long and distinguished career, the film sports an exciting cast of scenery chewers having a chance to do their corniest Southern accents. The Long, Hot Summer is a classic mash-up of contemporary Southern pulp and suppressed sexuality (think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof meets Picnic, or a much more entertaining version of The Fugitive Kind).

Emerging superstar Paul Newman (who also the starred in the similar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the same year) stars as Southern bad boy Ben Quick, a rogue con man and known arsonist who, after being run out of a town, wanders into another and quickly moves up the food chain of the local fat-cat, Will Varner (Orson Welles, only 42 years young at the time, forced to play much older, which explains his bizarre makeup job which looks almost like he is doing blackface, and may explain why his ham-level is turned up to eleven). Verner, a widower, owns the town and sees in the hotshot Quick a younger version of himself, something he’s doesn’t see in his own son, Jody (the even more miscast Anthony Franciosa). Jody may be married to the town beauty, Eula (Lee Remick), but he’s too spoiled and emotionally weak to carry out the legacy Verner dreams for his family. His daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) is smart and modern, not the shallow belle her father can relate too. She has been limply wooed for years by momma’s boy Alan (Richard Anderson, a secret 50s supporting actor superstar who specialized in boring businessmen, but is probably best known for playing Oscar on TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man). By '50s movie standards Alan is probably gay and does not have the sexual desire to ever make Verner a grandfather (more echo’s of Tennessee Williams). So Quick quickly works his way up through the family business. Verner cuts a deal with him: wed Clara, give him grandchildren, and he will be comfortable for life. Clara doesn’t fall for Quick’s good ol’ boy charm, but hey, it’s Paul Newman, so eventually she has to give in, that is if his reputation for starting fires doesn’t get him first.

This was the first of five films Newman and Ritt would make together, which peaked with the masterpiece Hud, in which Newman would play an even more abusive, strutting brute. This was also the the first of over a dozen collaborations between Newman and Woodward, including a long time marriage. Newman left his first wife for Woodward after they fell in love on the set. Woodward is interesting, coming off the heels of winning an Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve. Her performance stands out because it feels so contemporary and complicated compared with what the material offered her, and compared to the usual ingenues of the era. It’s like a deep character actress is trapped inside the head of a young beauty. And even that beauty is different, with her tight blond hair, short bangs, and awkward smile, she’s almost homely compared to the sex goddesses of the late 50s (Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe), but it also makes her more compelling and gives her performance more depth.

On the set, according to legend, Welles and Ritt did not get along. Though half of Welles' lines are almost inaudible because of his marble-mouthed, Foghorn Leghorn accent, it’s still clear the guy is extremely watchable and dominates most of the actors around him. Only the great Angela Lansbury, playing his long time girlfriend, is able to fully match him in focus steeling. ’58 is also the year Welles would act and direct in Touch of Evil and follow it with a towering performance in the underrated Compulsion (for my money the two greatest acting triumphs of his career). Besides his work with Newman, the New York born Ritt really made his reputation directing Southern, blue-collar films (Sounder, The Great White Hope, Conrack, Norma Rae and many more). Ritt’s filmography included more acclaim with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Front, which chronicled the effect on television writers by the blacklisting and McCarthyism; a horrible political phenomenon, which Ritt himself was a victim of. On his return from exile he had a minor hit with Edge of The City, after which The Long, Hot Summer confirmed him as a major talent. Most of Ritt’s work echoes his strong political conscious, tackling issues about race and labor, with a his sympathies clearly for the working class or the underdog. If you dug hard you could find some kinda anti-upper class theme in The Long, Hot Summer, but frankly it plays more as apolitical. This is a soap-opera, and as far '50s soap operas go, it’s as good as it gets. Newman and Ritt would spend the rest of their careers wearing their admirable left wing politics on their sleeves. That’s what makes the pure, trashy fun of The Long, Hot Summer even more appreciable.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 7, 2016 3:36pm
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