The first of Jerry Wald’s glossy William Faulkner productions is a near-perfect blend of pulsing taboo behaviour, frank language, and the onscreen chemistry between two charismatic actors.
Ostensibly a tale of a drifter who upsets the pecking order of an unstable new money family, The Long, Hot Summer was stitched together by screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. from three separate Faulkner stories: “Barn Burning,” “The Spotted Horses,” and “The Hamlet.”
The script, which features outstanding dialogue, flawlessly introduces accused barn burner Ben Quick (Paul Newman), a smooth talker who arrives in town with just a suitcase. By the end of his first day, Ben’s managed to lease a plot of land and farming gig from the town’s unofficial owner, Will Varner (Orson Welles). Ben’s also teased daughter Clara Varner and her sister-in-law Eula (Lee Remick) with his good looks and innate charm, and challenged the authority of brother Jody (Anthony Franciosa), whom Daddy Varner already believes is too weak to take over the family’s multiple businesses.
Within a short time span, Will offers Ben a potentially powerful position within the family network if he’s able to successfully woo hot & bothered but slow-moving daughter Clara, and produce offspring. Everyone’s seemingly at war until a rather neat series of events brings the film to an improbable yet typical Hollywood happy ending – the only flaw in this otherwise sharply constructed film.
Also of note is Alex North’s sparse yet memorable score, based around a languid main theme, smoothly crooned over the superb main titles sequence by Jimmy Rodgers; and Joseph LaShelle’s location cinematography throughout Louisiana.
Part of the attraction for any viewer is watching Newman and Woodard falling in love onscreen (the pair were married soon after), as well as Welles in a standout scene-stealing, scene devouring performance. The included AMC Backstory episode has the couple discussing their onscreen romance, and they also elaborate on Welles’ awkward situation at the time – a has-been director struggling to find work in A-level productions to fund his own directorial projects – plus the added friction of being surrounded by a trio of Method actors (Newman, Woodward, and Franciosa) and a director in need of proving himself after being blacklisted by Hollywood. Welles plays Will big and loud and sweaty, and it’s almost worth the price of admission. His flair for bombast is hugely entertaining, and it runs in tandem with the rich prose that’s poetic, boorish, and wry.
The Backstory episode covers the film’s full production, and contains interviews with Newman & Woodward, and Richard Anderson, who played Clara’s wishy-washy suitor who loses to Ben Quick. A super-short newsreel captures a premiere where Woodward, fresh from winning her Best Actress Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve, is the central focus.
Fox’s DVD (sporting a rather ugly cover) is a nice package, albeit in need of a lengthy commentary track. Mastered in 2003, the film really mandates a new transfer. The sound mix is lightly stereo and lacks the full depth and sonic boom present in the Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition of Wald’s second Faulkner film, The Sound and the Fury [M] (1959), a lesser production featuring the same director, writers, composer, and co-star Woodward.
Summer marked the first onscreen pairing of Newman and Woodward, and Newman would star in Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961), Hud (1963), The Outrage (1964), and Hombre (1967).
Like Wald’s Peyton Place, Fox decided to launch a TV series in the sixties of The Long, Hot Summer (1965-1966) with Roy Thinnes (The Invaders) and Nancy Malone in the lead roles, and the Faulkner stories were revisited in 1985 in a mini-series starring Don Johnson (Miami Vice) and Judith Ivey.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan