Directed by Martin Ritt
Starring Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Joanne Woodward, Lee Remick
Release 19th September 2016
Ain’t nothing worse than a barn burner. Especially if you’re in the steamy Deep South of Martin Ritt’s 1958 melodrama, The Long Hot Summer, which has just returned to the shelves on DVD.
The man in question is the drifting con-artist, Ben Quick (Paul Newman), run out of a Mississippi town for barn burning, even though it can’t be proven. Word travels fast: by the time he arrives in Frenchman’s Bend, everybody knows who he is by reputation. The town is owned lock, stock and barrel by Will Varner (Orson Welles) who is disappointed in his three children but sees promise in the young drifter and takes him under his wing. But such patronage doesn’t come without strings. He sees Ben as a likely husband for his elder daughter, the independent and educated Clara (Joanne Woodward). Whether she likes it or not.
Huge houses, servants, workers in the fields, sticky weather and jugs of chilled lemonade on the porch. It’s a familiar landscape, one that’s reminiscent of Tennessee Williams although what we have here is Williams-lite: Varner is no Big Daddy. Sex simmers just beneath the surface – more overtly at times with the horseplay between Eula (Lee Remick) and Jody (Anthony Franciosa), who are still in the first flush of marriage. This being 1958, we don’t see anything explicit, although the intentions are very clear in the scenes between Newman and Woodward, he the self-confident stud, she cool and determined. At just 23, she’s considered to be an old maid – her father is especially preoccupied with the idea, being desperate to continue the family name – but, unlike all her contemporaries, she’s happy to wait until the right man comes along.
The film looks all of its 58 years, not just because the lead actors all look remarkably young and the acting style is over-cooked by today’s standard, but also because of the garish colour palette. It’s at its most conspicuous with Orson Welles’ clumsy make-up, a man in his early 40s playing somebody in their 60s, primarily because of his substantial frame. In a terrible wig, hand-drawn eyebrows and way too much blusher – plus a false nose which notoriously kept slipping off in the heat – he looks more like a clown and his performance strikes the same note. For all his talent, he’s shown up by Messrs Newman and Woodward, who married after the film was made, with their spiky banter laden with innuendo. Newman won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance although, for me, Woodward just pips him to the post – fiercely intelligent, independent, determined but with an intensely beating heart underneath that exterior.
The film’s real problem is the ending. How true it is to William Faulkner’s original I don’t know but, as it builds to a climax, it could go in a number of different ways, most of them as dramatic as the rest of the story. Yet, for some unknown reason, it’s easily the weakest they could have chosen. Weak to the point of wet and a real let-down.
1958 was the year of some meaty movies – Orson Welles again in A Touch Of Evil, expansive western The Big Country, as well as some genuine Tennessee Williams in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – and a whole lot more on the second rung. Although The Long Hot Summer is one of them, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film. It’s entertaining melodrama, but it also makes you feel you’ve seen it all before. But done even better.
The Long Hot Summer was released on DVD on Monday 19th September and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 29 September.