Thursday, September 12, 2013

#1,123. The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

Directed By: Martin Ritt

Starring: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles

Tag line: "A story of the Modern South!"

Trivia: This film marks Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman's first cinematic collaboration

Directed by Martin Ritt, The Long, Hot Summer marked the first Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward appeared in a film together (they would marry a few months before its premiere, then spend the next 50 years together). Fortunately, their off-screen romance resulted in plenty of on-screen chemistry, with the star-crossed lovers delivering powerhouse performances.

Ben Quick (Newman) has been run out of a few towns over the years, all stemming from the accusation that he likes to burn down barns. Looking for a new place to call home, he hitches a ride with schoolteacher Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) and her sister-in-law Eula (Lee Remick), who are on their way to the small Mississippi town of Frenchman’s Bend. As it turns out, Clara’s father, Will Varner (Orson Welles), owns just about every business in Frenchman’s Bend, and at first is none too happy that a suspected arsonist has taken up residence there. But it isn’t long before Ben wins the old man’s respect, much to the chagrin of Varner’s son, Jody (Anthony Franciosa), who the elder Varner believes is too weak to carry on his legacy. Priming Ben to be his heir, Varner tries to arrange a marriage between Ben and Clara, despite the fact she’s already set her sights on local mama’s boy, Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson). Tension mounts and tempers flare as this family drama plays itself out, leading Ben to wonder whether he’s found a new home in Frenchmen’s Bend or not.

Based on the William Faulkner novel The Hamlet, The Long, Hot Summer is bristling with excitement, due in large part to the tumultuous relationship that develops between Ben and Clara. One night, on her way home from school, Clara looks in on the Varner General Store, where Ben is still hard at work. While the two are talking, Clara says she has a headache, and asks Ben for an aspirin. As he’s getting it for her, Ben comments that he never has headaches, mostly because he doesn’t have “any problems”. “Or scruples”, Clara adds, trying to get under Ben’s skin. Undeterred, he makes a pass at her. She slaps him, but before long the two are locked in a long kiss. The emotions the two convey in this scene, ranging from anger to desire, are as real as it gets.

The remainder of the cast is equally as impressive (Orson Welles effectively huffs and puffs his way through the film as the tempestuous Will Varner), and the sharp dialogue has the feel of a Tennessee Williams play (one night at dinner, the elder Varner mercilessly questions Alan Stewart as to why he’s waiting so long to propose to Clara), yet it’s Newman and Woodward who steal the show. The two would go on to make ten more movies together, but The Long, Hot Summer features the husband-wife team at their passionate best.

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