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Long, Hot Summer, The (Blu-ray Review)

11 Sep, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Orson Welles, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury.

Before we even get to the pro-con debate of where 1958’s The Long, Hot Summer stands in the relatively small pool of decent William Faulkner screen adaptations, let’s just say that aside from the Mississippi setting and bourbon that flows through its veins, I don’t even think of it as being a Faulkner movie. Beginnning their longtime association with director Martin Rift, married collaborators Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. may have jerry-built their script from The Hamlet and a couple Faulkner short stories, but the picture ultimately cuts it as a standout example (like Peyton Place) of the slickly irresistible, gorgeously shot, big-star entertainment that producer Jerry Wald was able to fashion at 20th Century-Fox before his untimely 1962 death at age 50. (As a matter of fact, Wald was supreme-o at all four studios he worked at in his career.)

The first of six Ritt collaborations with lead Paul Newman, Summer is also best by far of the many Newman-Joanne Woodward teamings, other than, of course, the one the couple enjoyed in real life. It opened in theaters about a week after she took the 1957 best actress Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve (John Wayne was her presenter), and Newman would soon parlay Summer into a best actor at the Cannes Film Festival, something I’d forgotten. Hot couple and all that — though some of the bloom would tarnish a tad when Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys came out the following Christmas, and Newman displayed his pre-Butch Cassidy inability to comedy (after that, his turnabout was “Slap Shot” amazing). Otherwise, he’s in his early prime here, even beyond his impossible good looks: cast as a cagey drifter accused of a crime taken with utmost seriousness in rural parts (“barn burning”) — which isn’t enough to keep him insinuating himself into the family of a town patriarch who owns everything this side of the Nehi concession (and probably even that).   

Utilizing some of that unconvincing gray dye that, much as I love Giant, Rock Hudson had to sport to less-than-ideal effect in that Texas epic’s later scenes, Orson Welles plays this sometimes mean but always mischievous patriarch — fighting it out at first with Anthony Franciosa (as his weakling son) to see who can be the bigger haunch of ham. Though both actors settle down some to have several good and certainly more temperate scenes, the movie belongs to Newman, Woodward and, in a smaller role, the ever-gorgeous Lee Remick, whose highly amusing flibbertigibbet-ish performance is one I’m guessing that Pamela Tiffin might have conceivably looked at before scoring heavily three years later as “Scarlett” Hazeltine in Billy Wilder’s uproarious One Two Three.

Still — and with a cast loaded enough to have Angela Lansbury sixth-billed — this is a Newman-Woodward showcase all the way, and I never saw the latter as appealing on screen as she is here. Regarded as a spinster at 23 (times were tough on pre-’70s women with brains, as if that even needs to be said), her character is a Welles daughter and local schoolteacher living at the family mansion. It’s a less-than-ideal cocoon, but she’s holding out for the right man when the pickings down at the feed store look slimmer than Grant Williams’ waistline in The Incredible Shrinking Man. And to her, newcomer Newman’s not the guy even before the torched-barn accusations can get a toehold into the equation; his brashness is enough, even though he seems to be the rare young man her daddy will let through the front door. This pretty well leaves her to half-pursue the dullish inheritor of one their burg’s family “names” in a role predictably played by Richard Anderson — vaguely “sickish,” probably gay if we hear the muted big-screen signals of the day and, in any event, burdened with one of those impossible Southern mothers who should have been drafted into the WACS for a little brain-straightening.

As it turns out, Newman may be brash, but he eventually shows a surprisingly vulnerable side — and it’s fully convincing even when I’m never certain of which U.S. geographical area the actor’s Southern accent was born. Their continued bandying is the movie’s highpoint, which rightly peaks with a wonderfully romantic conclusion even as other plot points get wrapped up a bit too conveniently. All of this is splendidly shot by Joseph LaShelle, who got six of his eight Oscar nominations for black-and-white (he won for Laura) but who also turned out to be a master of widescreen color composition (see also River of No Return, just for one example). As an interesting footnote, La Shelle was also co-cinematographer of the ill-fated (on multiple levels) The Conqueror but seems to have been one of the relatively few cast/crew members whose life wasn’t shortened by alleged atomic fallout floating around on location following previous nuclear testing. On a more trivial note, the title song was part of a two-sided Roulette Records hit for Jimmie Rodgers, paired with the bigger “Oh, Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again,” which Rodgers himself plundered for a TV jingle he did for Spaghettios. I wonder if William Faulkner ever ate Spaghettios.

The movie was popular enough to inspire a short-lived ’60s TV series and a made-for-TV version with Don Johnson. As for Faulkner on the big screen, a lot of people would probably pick Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels as Hollywood’s best salvo — but somewhat to my surprise, there are quite a few Sirks I like a lot more (there aren’t many bigger Sirk fans) despite my definite admiration for a movie that opened just three months before Summer. Leaving out the screenplays Faulkner wrote for outside projects (I’m too tired to defend Land of the Pharaohs, though I have), I’m inclined to go with Tomorrow and Intruder in the Dust as best though I’d be remiss in not mentioning The Story of Temple Drake, both for salacious Miriam Hopkins reasons and an overall Paramount “look” that no other studio in the ’30s came close to matching (aside, perhaps, from certain art deco RKOs that Woody Allen aped to perfection in The Purple Rose of Cairo). There are those who really like The Reivers, but it’s a Mark Rydell movie (yawn), and even this Steve McQueen worshipper lost patience on a recent attempted re-look. I may give it another shot.   

Obviously, with several past Faulkner TV adaptations in the bank as well, this is a “subject for further research” (as Andrew Sarris used to say). One certainty here is that lightning did not strike twice when Summer’s popularity helped engender a Wald-Ritt-Ravetch-Frank-Woodward-Alex North reunion for an asking-for-it attempt just one year later to make The Sound and the Fury work on screen. There were too many narrative minefields, though again, I don’t even think of predecessor Summer as a Faulkner movie but an example of what star-power chemistry used to be. I’d say this Blu-ray is almost but not quite up to Twilight Time’s Peyton Place release as a stunner — but in certain (actually, several) outdoor shots, it is.

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