A southern fried melodrama based on characters and situations from a series of William Faulker stories, Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer offers romance and drama in equal measure filled with a brilliant cast and lush location photography that makes the most of the Cinemascope screen.
The Production: 4/5
A southern fried melodrama based on characters and situations from a series of William Faulker stories, Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer offers romance and drama in equal measure filled with a brilliant cast and lush location photography that makes the most of the Cinemascope screen. True, there are tinges of dramas by Tennessee Williams and William Inge in the makeup of this saga, and some of the Deep South accents are much too cornpone heavy to pass muster, but this is the type of 1950s sweaty, sexy piece that can grab a viewer and hold on tight.
The Varner family practically owns the town of Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi, but that doesn’t mean the family is without problems. Family patriarch Will Varner (Orson Welles) is back home after a very serious illness that required the removal of some of his insides, but he intends to live what time he has left to the fullest. But that means he expects the world from his two children who have so far been a vast disappointments to him: reticent son Jody (Anthony Franciosa) who can’t seem to earn his father’s respect no matter what he does and daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) who after a five-year courtship by mama’s boy Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson) still hasn’t garnered a proposal. Into their lives wanders Ben Quick (Paul Newman), run out of a nearby town unfairly labeled as a firebug. Ben quickly establishes himself as a force of nature, negotiating a series of deals so cannily with old man Varner that Will practically adopts him as a surrogate son much to Jody’s mounting dismay, and in Ben, Varner sees the makings of a potential son-in-law who can provide him with the thing he wants most: grandchildren.
Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr have taken bits and pieces from six different William Faulkner tales to forge their screenplay, but things play so smoothly that one would never know the story was a piecemeal effort. There is a subplot that isn’t given nearly the attention it deserves: town madame Minnie Littlejohn’s (Angela Lansbury) machinations to snag Will as her husband after a longtime affair carried on in the dead of night and through alleys and back doors. Otherwise, though, Ben’s slow and steady rise to prominence in the Varner family (signified by his changes of clothes from ratty, sweaty rags to blue suits and bow ties that reflect his growing status in the community), Jody’s crumbling hold on his emotions as he sees his place in the family usurped by an outsider, and Clara’s slow realization of the life Ben can give her all unfold in masterful stages guided by the expert hand of director Martin Ritt in his first of many teamings with Paul Newman. Ritt’s handling of some of the film’s prime moments is sublime: Ben’s mastery with huckstering at a horse auction, an all-American town picnic, the climactic barn burning, and yet more intimate scenes are handled with just as sure a hand: Quick’s seduction of Clara at the store, Will and Clara’s showdown about her unmarried state, and Will’s painful dressing down of the pitiful Jody taking away his last shred of dignity.
Paul Newman explodes onto the screen as Ben Quick. He had already shown his flair as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, but this performance really cemented his cocksure swagger for the world to see, and had he not also starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958, it might have been this movie that brought him his first Oscar nomination rather than Cat. Joanne Woodward shows depth as the southern girl fearful of spinsterhood, and she and Newman certainly spark on-screen making their marriage after making the movie not much of a surprise. Orson Welles lays on the Southern accent very thickly and broadly, but there’s no denying that he’s a blustering, bellowing whirlwind all through the movie. Anthony Franciosa’s accent is a bit too broad as well, but his needy performance is so heartbreaking that the twang just doesn’t matter. Richard Anderson as the soft-spoken Alan Stewart is effective without being bombastic. Angela Lansbury is a delight in all of her scenes (too bad there weren’t more of them), and Lee Remick as Jody’s flirty wife Eula is also a visual knockout though despite her beauty she rather fades from the movie in its second half.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is superb throughout the running time, and the clarity and details in facial features, hair, costumes, and the Louisiana locations are easily spotted. Color is rich and full though skin tones sometimes veer a bit too much on the brown side for certain tastes. The transfer is spotlessly clean, and contrast has been beautifully applied for a first-rate picture. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The disc offers both DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround mixes for the listener to choose from. I watched half of the movie using each track, and I slightly preferred the 5.1 mix (which is the default choice) with the dialogue a little more forward and exact with occasional directional placement. Alex North’s lovely score and the various ambient sounds get a more than decent treatment in the two mixes.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Isolated Score Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
Hollywood Backstories: The Long, Hot Summer (21:28, SD): another in the excellent series of Hollywood Backstories that detail behind-the-scenes problems and situations which occurred during the making of the movie. Commenting on the film’s production are Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Angela Lansbury, and Richard Anderson.
Fox Movietone Newsreels (2:00, SD): two newsreels shown back-to-back, the first detailing the Fox winners in the annual Photoplay awards and the second covering the Baton Rouge premiere of the movie attended by producer Jerry Wald and star Joanne Woodward.
Theatrical Trailer (2:38, SD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains some color and tinted stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s enthusiastic appreciation for the movie.
Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer is another of those wildly entertaining Cinemascope dramas from the 1950s filled with big stars, a lush production, and gobs of juicy melodrama, wonderfully presented on this Twilight Time Blu-ray release. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.