The Long, Hot Summer (1958)
★★★ / ★★★★
The name Ben Quick has always had a negative connotation: word has it that he has a penchant for setting things on fire. After a barn is burnt to the ground, Ben (Paul Newman) is cast out by his community—despite a lack of evidence. So, he makes his way to Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi and is picked up by two women: Eula (Lee Remick), the lively passenger, and Clara (Joanne Woodward), the unimpressed driver. They are the Varners and Will Varner (Orson Welles), Eula’s father-in-law and Clara’s father, runs the town. Ben, tired of scrounging for money his whole life, plans to seize a great opportunity.
“The Long, Hot Summer,” based on a novella and a short story by William Faulkner and adapted to the screen by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., is perceptive in that it chooses to focus on the human drama rather than the plot. I expected a romantic classic picture with the usual trappings and delights. Halfway through, I realized that what was in front of me aspires to deliver beyond a typical arc. It has romantic love, true, but it is also about love among family and a deep unhappiness writhing just beneath.
Newman and Woodward share excellent chemistry and pairing them up with a script that has crackle and pop is great entertainment. The masterstroke is having Ben and Clara dislike each other for a long time—so long that three-quarters of the picture has gone by and they share no scene that is typically sweet or cute. Each scene commands a level of tension because while they look so perfect for each other, we begin to suspect that maybe, deep down, they are too different to the point where the possibility of them ending up together—and being happy—reaches improbability.
Woodward plays Clara with a level of coldness. The character is not mean or a rich snob but she knows exactly what she wants. At times that trait can be intimidating and Woodward plays it up a notch. However, she is careful not to paint Clara as unattainable. There is a complexity to her; she can be vulnerable in the most surprising ways.
Newman, on the other hand, plays Ben with a level of danger. Like Woodward’s balancing act, the actor colors Ben with just enough humanity that it becomes difficult to categorize his personality as well as his intentions. Both characters are unpredictable and that is why it is very enjoyable to watch them revolve around one another.
Rarely has the South been so alluring to me. I took pleasure in listening to the dialogue—the rhythm and poetry of it. The screenplay allows the conversation to run their course. When two characters are sharing a cup of tea, one cannot help but wonder what they are really talking about. The subject may be about loneliness or is the root of the tête-à-tête about sex? And yet there are moments when the characters surprise us by being very direct.
The film has two weak points: it does not spend enough time on the people outside the Varner family and Welles playing the tough and obstinate patriarch. To understand how the folks that surround—and worship—the Varners is key because of the lead’s reputation. Toward the end, they take on an important role but the charade bear little impact because the reaction appears to come out of the blue. Welles, on the other hand, shouts just about every line. While Will is supposed to be unpleasant, the performance need not be. There are a few moments when Welles plays it quiet. While tolerable for a minute or two, he then proceeds to pair lower decibels with yet another tirade.
Directed by Martin Ritt, “The Long, Hot Summer” has an edge: while it can be romantic, it is also savagely funny without losing grip on the basic dramatic elements. The scenes with Will’s only son, Jody (Anthony Franciosa), are almost always played for laughs but his being pathetic has an undercurrent of real unhappiness worth looking into. He wants to impress his father so much that there are moments when, arguably, he is worse than the man of the house. But he is not the only one with something to prove. Twenty-three-year-old Clara is still unmarried. Her father wants grandchildren badly. As a man of means, he usually gets what he wants.