Friday, July 3, 2015

The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

Director: Martin Ritt                                     Writer: Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank Jr.
Film Score: Alex North                                Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Starring: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles and Lee Remick

The Long, Hot Summer is a combination of several of William Faulkner’s Snopes’ tales. And while the story works as a film, those who are familiar with the source material will find themselves bewildered at times by Paul Newman, who inhabits no less than three separate Faulkner characters in the course of the film. 20th Century Fox had purchased the rights to two of Faulkner’s novels, and when Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank were given the task of adapting The Hamlet, they added parts of other stories in creating their screenplay. The cast was made up primarily of hot young actors from New York, the exception being Orson Welles. In his first appearance onscreen the veteran actor in his heavy makeup looks remarkably like Broderick Crawford, and the more one watches the film the more apparent it is that Crawford would have made a far better patriarch for the story. Welles mumbled his words so thoroughly during his scenes that director Martin Ritt had to go in afterward and loop almost all of his dialogue--which is still unintelligible much of the time. But Ritt had to make it work because he was attempting to resuscitate his career after being blackballed by the communist witch-hunts of the early fifties.

The film opens with a scene out of Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” Paul Newman is in a country store being tried for burning his employer’s barn. The owner can’t prove it and so Newman goes free, but must leave town. He heads down the Mississippi on a tug boat behind the opening credits, and when he reaches land he hitches a ride with Joanne Woodward and Lee Remick, daughter and daughter-in-law respectively, of the richest man in town, Orson Welles. The bulk of the story is from the Faulkner novel The Hamlet, with Newman’s character being a combination of the stranger in town named Quick, and the barn burner named Snopes. Remick is a flibbertigibbet and married to Welles’ son Tony Franciosa, while Woodward is an unmarried schoolteacher in love with the last remaining gentry in the village, Richard Anderson. Newman begins by renting a plot of land to sharecrop, but when Welles comes out to confront him about his criminal past he tells him the best fire insurance would be to give him a good job so that he wouldn’t want to leave. Welles agrees and begins by having him sell some horses, in a scene from a lengthy short story called “Spotted Horses” that Faulkner would incorporate into The Hamlet. After Newman’s success, Welles gives him a job at his store, which upsets Franciosa who feels threatened by the newcomer.

The real conflict in the plot comes when Welles begins feeling his mortality and wants to have grandchildren immediately. His answer is to marry off Woodward either to Anderson or Newman; he’s not particular. The choice that Woodward has to make is not an easy one, temporary sexual fulfillment with Newman accompanied by a life of misery and uncertainty, or solid home and future with Anderson along with complete boredom and physical neglect. It’s clear that she wants neither, and at the same time it’s just as clear there are no other offers on the horizon. Though the film is sexually suggestive, it’s not very explicit at all. The real moral angst comes from Welles’ willingness to sell his daughter like a slave to Newman, when she clearly hates the man. While Newman’s character began as a composite of two characters from Faulkner’s works, at the end of the film he also becomes a third, Snopes’ son Sarty from the end of “Barn Burning.” And then Hollywood jumps to the fore to pull the whole Southern morass into Middle America and end the thing just like a TV show. It’s difficult to watch because, as conflicting as the Southern lack of morality is to watch, it’s just as disconcerting to see Faulkner’s vision completely undermined at the end.

Alex North’s jazz-influenced score is fairly unremarkable, though the use of an actual theme song with lyrics sung by Jimmie Rogers during the title credits is definitely a low point on the soundtrack. While the film was considered a hit at the time because it made money, it was not a significant box-office draw, and was only the sixth-highest grossing film for Fox that year. The other notable aspect of the film is that it is the first pairing of Newman and Woodward on film and following principal photography the two were married in Las Vegas. None of the acting in the film, however, is necessarily great, even that of the two principals. Newman is Newman and Woodward is Woodward and there is a stylization to the Southern stereotypes that lacks originality and interest overall. Even a small role by the great Angela Landsbury doesn’t even manage to resonate. The film itself is also heavily influenced by Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which Newman had starred in shortly after this production in order to capitalize on its modest success. Newman managed to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival for best actor, but the film was ignored at Oscar time. The Long, Hot Summer is certainly interesting for the actors involved, and worth a viewing, but ultimately it is a disappointing Faulkner adaptation.

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