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March 2011

The Long, Hot Summer

cast: Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Joanne Woodward, and Anthony Franciosa

director: Martin Ritt

112 minutes (PG) 1958
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Long, Hot Summer

Over a period of about 29 years, the great William Faulkner produced a series of novels and short stories detailing the lives of the Snopes family. Much like Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart series, the Snopes stories recount the ups and downs of a single family against a backdrop of social change, economic turmoil and political churn. As with much of Faulkner's work, the Snopes stories burn not only with the heat of social realism but the dazzling flames of a style of writing that is poetic in its cadences and experimental in its form.

Loosely based upon the first novel in the series (1940's The Hamlet), The Long, Hot Summer captures not only the smouldering southern charm of Faulkner's writing but also his eye for details both psychological and social. It is no accident that this film was the first in a series of works penned by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr, a married couple who went on to produce Hud (1963), one of the more memorable of the first wave of revisionist westerns, a genre which, even in its modern instances such as the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010), and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007), continues to owe a debt of gratitude to the slow-burning poetic realism of Faulkner.

Frenchman's Bend is a small town in rural Mississippi. Equipped with the usual southern combination of corn-fed hicks and lace-clad gentry, the town exists in the shadow of the great Will Varner. Played with cigar-chomping glee by a genuinely magnificent Orson Welles, Varner's character is so huge that it seems to have engulfed both the town and his family. However, while the town benefits from Varner's economic genius and energy, his family suffers. Jody (Anthony Franciosa) is a man who knows that he will never live up to his father's reputation or expectation. Utterly in love with his beautiful wife Eula, he has long since given up trying to make anything of himself and so he lives in the present. Like a child he survives on parental gifts whether in the shape of money or wives.

Clara (Joanne Woodward) also suffers as a result of her father's overbearing personality. Beautiful, intelligent and complicated, Clara is so terrified of picking the wrong man that she has devoted her life to winning the affections of a man she knows has eyes only for his equally overbearing mother. Dominating the psychological as well as the physical and economic landscape, Varner realises that things must change but, rather than loosen his grip and allow people to live, he prefers to plot and scheme while the life he really wants seems to be ebbing away from him with each passing year. With so much unhappiness and so much resentment only adding to the heat of a long hot summer, it seems that only a single spark would be needed for the whole place to catch fire.

Ben Quick (Paul Newman) is a barnburner. A penniless tenant farmer who has a reputation for setting fire to his landlord's buildings when things don't go his way, Quick washes up at Frenchman's Bend and quickly sets about climbing the social ladder. His path up the ladder is eased by Will who sees in the smooth-talking and ruthless Ben not merely a chip off the old block but also a solution to his problems; if Jody will not step up and become his father's son then Ben can serve as Will's strong right arm and if Clara will not marry the bloodless scion of old money, that she has been mooning over for the last five years, then the handsome and charming Ben can step in and fill the gap.

The Long, Hot Summer is a film about the tension between what we think we should be and what we are. Indeed, while Will dominates the town of Frenchman's Bend there is a very clear sense that he is not completely happy. Part of this unhappiness is admittedly due to the failure of his children to do as their told, but the true source of his chagrin is his refusal to commit to marrying his long-time girlfriend Minnie (Angela Lansbury). Minnie tries repeatedly to force Will's arm by giving him ultimatums and trying to organise the wedding in secret so as to present it to him as a fait-accompli, but Will keeps on slipping out of her grasp and hating himself for it. He knows that he loves Minnie and he knows that he wants to marry her but his image of himself is of a freewheeling bachelor who is still traumatised by the death of his wife. It is not until he eventually realises that he does not need to be this person that Will can consent to be married and so grab himself a slice of happiness.

This tension plays out again and again throughout the beautifully written script as Jody realises that he is not need to be the indecisive son of an overbearing parent and Clara realises that she does not need to be a passionless counterpoint to her libidinous and larger-than-life father. However, it is in the person of Ben Quick that this theme finds its most eloquent articulation.

For the first two thirds of the film, Newman's performance as Quick rankles. Quick with the charm and quick to see an opportunity for self-advancement, Newman's Quick seems far more psychologically brittle than you would expect of the traditional social-climbing opportunist. Such characters tend to be all outward charm and inner emptiness but Newman's blue eyes are filled with a cold that comes not from some great inner void but from some crushing personal sadness. Quick is happy to be the barnburner, he is happy to be the cathartic spark that allows other people to resolve their problems but he also hates himself for having to be the one to assume that role.

The worst obligations we have are the ones that we place on ourselves. Obligations formed by the stories we tell about ourselves as we try to make sense of who we are and what we do. Each of the characters in this beautifully shot, brilliantly written and wonderfully acted film carries within them an inner sadness that they themselves planted there. It is only be realising that we are not the plant but the ground in which it grows that we can truly be free, as Voltaire enigmatically writes at the end of Candide (1759), when all is done and the world has turned "we must cultivate our garden."

The Long, Hot Summer comes with a trailer as the only DVD extra. Why you would want to watch a trailer for a film you have already own is, quite frankly, beyond me but I guess it is more face-saving for the distributors than a note saying 'yeah... we couldn't be arsed to dig up any extras and besides, we've got your money now anyway ha ha ha bitches'.



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