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The Long, Hot Summer

The Long, Hot Summer
Fox Home Video
1958 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 105 min. / Street Date June 3, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Orson Welles, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury, Richard Anderson
Cinematography Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music Alex North
Written by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr. from stories and a novel by William Faulkner
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by Martin Ritt

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Yet another overboiled soap opera from Jerry Wald, the producer of the gold mine Peyton Place, this all-star vehicle was concocted by folding a half-dozen Faulkner stories together. The result is reasonably well-written but still plays like watered-down Tennessee Williams. The efforts of a mostly-excellent cast bring the characters to life, and the real-life romance team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward bless the story with more than a little dignity. The verdict is, that for this kind of movie, The Long Hot Summer is not bad at all.


Ambitious, mysterious young drifter Ben Quick (Paul Newman) slips into Frenchman's Bend and directly into the lives of the family of local honcho Will Varner (Orson Welles) a bigger than life, domineering man with a King Lear complex. Practically being made a substitute son, Quick immediately earns the contempt of Will's real son Jody (Anthony Franciosa), who's not so dumb that he doesn't realize he's being pushed aside. Jody finds some compensation in the arms of his hot-blooded new wife Eula (Lee Remick). But Will, who is already carrying on with local floozie Minnie Littlejohn (Angela Lansbury) has plans for Ben Quick - to hook the young stud up with his virginal, schoolteacher daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward).

It's a hot summer in Mississippi, and you can bet that everyone who matters in Frenchman's Bend has but one idea on their minds - sex. In Picnic, William Holden's character tells a tall tale of being picked up by two women in a convertible looking for a good time. In Picnic, it's a characters' obvious self-serving fantasy, but The Long Hot Summer starts out in almost the same way, with borderline nympho Lee Remick half leaping into the back seat to be with highway bum Paul Newman.

Flexing his muscles and leading every conversation with the kind of vague sexual banter nobody gets away with in real life, Paul Newman is the dangerous stud stranger who prowls around the edges of Faulkner stories. Only here he's really a swell guy. Never mind that he takes advantage of his new boss's willingness to let him into his house like a fox into a chicken coop. Newman's Ben Quick mercilessly fleeces son Jody, but shows uncommon ethics when returning $60 to a sharecropper's wife cheated in a horse auction swindle.

The Long Hot Summer lumbers from setpiece to setpiece - the horse auction, the hunt for pirate gold, using Ben Quick's undeserved reputation as a Barn-Burner for its main tension device. Naturally, jealousy conspires to again frame the innocent Quick for another near-tragedy.

All of the characters are written and mostly played very obviously. Richard Anderson is completely colorless as Clara's gentleman beau. Lee Remick is very good as a brainless, sex-obsessed bride, but neither she nor Anthony Franciosa's dumb-cluck son go far beyond the words of the text. He's made to come off like the patsy in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Angela Lansbury received praise for her portrayal of the aging town slut with an eye for Varner Senior - a role similar to Marlene Dietrich's more honest Madam in Touch of Evil the same year. It's a change of pace for Lansbury, perhaps leading to her string of unpleasant or murderous females in the 60s.

Orson Welles is the prize turkey in this show. Given a bombastic, domineering Southern Colonel role to play, Welles turns up the volume, but wouldn't fool a ten-year-old. With a grotesque fake nose (usually the sign that Welles really wants to hide himself in the role) and a bizarre makeup concept that looks like someone threw a fistful of cinnamon in his face, Welles snarls and plots and makes impure suggestions to everyone around him. Just beginning to lose control of his weight, Welles slams his character around town in a jeep. He's supposed to be the rich, intimidating string-puller feared and respected by all, but he comes off as a phony Foghorn Leghorn imitation. The various hicks and rubes that comprise the population of Frenchman's Bend have to be made exceedingly stupid in order for Varner's character to work.

The script requires Welles' Varner character to practically pimp his bookworm daugher Clara off on the new man in town, and he stomps around demanding to know if she's made up her mind or not about which beau she's to marry. Welles is so intrusive, his next step would be to check Clara's underwear when she comes home at night (the movie feels that crude). Then for a conclusion, the script has Will Varner character perform a sentimental about-face, happily accepting a son who's just tried to kill him and fix the blame on another. To do this, Welles has to run around like Bozo the Clown for three minutes, spoutin' and a-fumin'. It isn't pretty. A pro like Edward Arnold (Come and Get It) could have made most of this show work, but not the crazy ending.

The saving grace of The Long Hot Summer is Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Newman brings class and some honest directness to the itinerant hunk, Ben Quick, and for at least this film drops most of his faux-James Dean posturing. This Quick knows exactly who he is and what he's up to, and he zeroes in on spinster Clara precisely because his good taste naturally leads him to quality. Joanne Woodward has to find a way to let Clara keep some dignity, which is not an easy task under the circumstances. This woman is abused by just about everyone in sight, particularly her father. Dimestore psychology will decree that she be attracted to a powerful man similar to Daddy, but we can tell that the attraction between Newman and Woodward is real ... and it works. Woodward's repeated turndowns are sincere, but they never fully slam the door; Newman's sleazy come-ons are almost flattering, and he's quick to back them up with real feeling. It just shows ya how some honest acting can prop up an obvious, unconvincing story, and bring it to life.

The Long Hot Summer ends with a double marriage on the way, a dimwit son welcomed back into the fold, and everybody in the Varner household happily in the sack with the right mate. It's a bizarre thing to be celebrating at the fadeout, and, if this were a book, certainly nothing William Faulkner would have put his name on. As a downgrade sexy 50s soap, it's not bad at all, mostly through the graces of its young romantic stars.

Fox's DVD of The Long Hot Summer is a glossy enhanced presentation that restores proper CinemaScope dimensions and stereo sound to this 1958 hit. An AMC Backstory piece on the film stays safely respectful of this easy-to-criticize potboiler, but puts across a lot of background info that's prudent to print, such as director Martin Ritt's rescue from the blacklist. Those interviewed (Newman, Woodward, Lansbury) say safe things about each other, with Welles made the easy target. Also included is a newsreel of the Louisiana Premiere (even though the film takes place in the state next door) and a trailer that appropriately makes the sex content seem even hotter.

Sarah Marshall, the Varner neighbor who gets half a scene with Woodward and featured billing, is actually an English actress, the daughter of Herbert Marshall and Edna Best. The same year, she played the femme lead in Roger Corman's Teenage Cave Man. I'm beginning to believe that the six degrees of separation in Hollywood should really center around Roger Corman.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Long, Hot Summer rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Backstory docu, newsreel, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 14, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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