The Long, Hot Summer (1958)
Starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury and Richard Anderson. Directed by Martin Ritt. From Twentieth Century-Fox.
Ben Quick (Newman) has the reputation of a dangerous man and bears the stigma of his barn-burning father. Chased out of one Mississippi town after another, he lights on Frenchman’s Bend, a town dominated by Will Varner (Welles). Working his way into Varner’s business, Ben sees an opportunity to make some money and also to pursue Varner’s daughter, Clara (Woodward). In Ben, Will sees a kindred spirit and pits Ben against his own son, Jody (Franciosa). Ben takes Jody’s place in the Varner store and continues to garner Will’s favour at Jody’s expense.
For five years, Clara has been courted by Alan (Anderson) and Will, getting impatient for grandkids, begins to pressure Clara to get Alan to marry her. It’ll be gentle Alan, Will says, or brash Ben Quick – much to Clara’s horror. Unaware of Will’s ultimatum to Clara, Ben has continued to make his play for her, kissing her and outbidding Alan and winning a picnic lunch with her. Clara stays resolute in expressing her repulsion towards Ben.
As Ben continues to lap Jody, the younger Varner begins to become unhinged, devastated by his father’s disregard of him and obsessed with loathing for Quick. When Jody threatens to kill Ben, Ben offers him some “buried treasure” he found on the land Will gave him. Jody bites only to have his father come down to where Jody is digging and tell him he has been swindled. This pushes Jody over the edge.
Clara is crushed when Alan admits to her that he doesn’t intend to marry her and she begins to wonder if there is a spark of good in Ben. Jody, overcome with jealously, shame and hatred, locks his father in the barn and sets fire to it. As the literal and figurative flames rage, solutions for this southern family begin to fall into place.
The Long, Hot Summer is based on three William Faulkner stories; a novella, a short story and the novel The Hamlet. This hybrid screenplay has the southern steam of Tennessee Williams and the sexual fire of William Inge. Producer Jerry Wald hired Martin Ritt to direct. Ritt had been a television director when he got caught up in the Red Scare. While he was not directly named by HUAC, Ritt was looked at askance because of shows he directed for a grocery store union and for the Russian War Relief. He was also associated with a theatre group that was based on a Russian model. When a Syracuse grocer charged Ritt with donating to Communist China, well, that was the final straw and Ritt was blacklisted in television. He supported himself by teaching at the Actors Studio, an association that would soon reap benefits. Ritt decided to take on feature films and helmed the gritty film noir Edge of the City and No Down Payment with Woodward before being tapped by his friend, Wald, to bring to the screen this first of two Faulkner stories Fox had recently bought the rights to. Ritt would go on to direct several more films featuring Newman and/or Woodward.
The excellent cast was assembled from actors Ritt had encountered at the Actors Studio; Newman, Woodward, Franciosa and Remick were all young, hip, New York-type Method actors. There was one glaring exception, though. Legendary filmmaker and scenery-chewing actor Orson Welles was considered right for the role of Will Varner by Ritt although he was warned against hiring the cantankerous Welles. Sure enough, Welles and Ritt clashed many times on set. Now, Martin Ritt was a competent director at this point – although this is only his third feature – but he’s directing one of the most innovative directors who ever lived. Welles would have to have been possessed of a restraint he simply wasn’t equipped with to not interject his opinions and impose his will on this novice director. One of the best examples of this I could find was Welles insisting that he didn’t want to memorize his lines – he would just dub them later. Which is hilarious when you think about it; what did Welles want to do while shooting a scene? Just say some stuff, anything he wanted, and then dub in the lines later? And what about those actors opposite him in the scene? How would they react to him talking about, say, pizza instead of reading his lines? Good old Orson.
Joanne Woodward has defended Welles by saying that while he intimidated the young actors he was working with, he must also have felt intimidated, plying his craft opposite all this Method acting. Orson got the last laugh, however. As “fat, ugly, redneck” Will Varner, Welles chose to adopt a muddy Southern accent that had Ritt actually concerned that some of Welles’ lines were indecipherable. Later in an interview Welles had a chuckle over this saying he “showed those Method actors how to mumble”. Orson later stated he “hated” making this film and only took the job because of his $150,000 tax debt.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward became an item while making The Long, Hot Summer. Their fellow cast mates have said they could see it happening. Newman had appeared notably in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me before appearing in our film for which he won the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor. He would go on to be…Paul Newman. He appeared later the same year in another story of sexual angst set in the south in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for which he received the first of his 9 Academy Award nominations; he finally won a Best Actor Oscar for reprising his portrayal of pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in 1986’s The Color of Money. A week before The Long, Hot Summer opened, Joanne Woodward was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work the previous year in The Three Faces of Eve; she would go on to be nominated thrice more. Newman and Woodward – married for a little over 50 years – would appear in 10 movies together, some good – Paris Blues – and some terrible – A New Kind of Love.
Not only did Newman go on to be Newman but Orson Welles…was Orson Welles and he continued on with a career that has few parallels. The general tenor of most of what I’ve read about Welles as Will Varner is not exactly negative but dismissive. This may have a lot to do with his appearance in the film. Apparently, he always wore a fake nose in films and while shooting this film in the heat of Baton Rouge his nose kept sliding off his face. But his appearance is not Orson’s fault. First off, as controlling as Welles could be, no doubt the director and the make-up department would have wanted the character of Will to look a certain way. Secondly, I think it works. I think he looks like who he’s playing, the blustering patriarch of a southern family.
And never mind what he looks like; I think Welles is captivating as Varner. His mumbling southern accent is perfect for the role and, for bombast, I much prefer Welles’ Varner to Burl Ives’ “Big Daddy” from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; although I accept that Ives gives the better performance. Welles is given some great lines and delivers them with relish. There’s two even in a short clip like this one: “You’re a young dangerous man; I’m an old one”; “Well, we won’t start right off with murder…”.
“I’m goin’ out west where the wind blows tall ’cause Tony Franciosa used to date my ma”. Sorry, but this Tom Waits song from 1992 was my introduction to Anthony Franciosa. Next, I ran into him while obsessing over Matt Helm; Tony played the secret agent on television in the ’70’s. Tony had been a successful stage actor (A Hatful of Rain) and moved on to films such as A Face in the Crowd and Career (with Dean Martin) for which Tony won a Golden Globe. Prior to beginning work on The Long, Hot Summer, Tony had been out on the town with his second of four wives, Shelley Winters, when a photographer got up in his grill. Unbeknownst to the paparazzo, Tony was well-known for his hair-trigger temper and Tony clocked the guy. Subsequently, while he was portraying Jody Varner before the cameras in Louisiana, Tony was extremely anxious about his impending court date and this informed his performance as the stressed out Varner son. He subsequently would spend 10 days in Tehachapi (prison) for punching the photographer. Tony would go on to a respectable career appearing with Newman and Woodward years later in The Drowning Pool and starring in five television series.
21-year-old Lee Remick plays southern dish Eula, Jody Varner’s vivacious wife. What’s the best thing about Lee besides her fresh good looks? She was born with the name Lee Remick; a very cool handle. Before our movie she had debuted in A Face in the Crowd (with Franciosa) and went on to notable turns in Anatomy of a Murder, Experiment in Terror and her Oscar-nominated role of alcoholic Kirsten Clay in Blake Edwards’ Days of Wine and Roses. Sadly, she died young in 1991 of kidney and liver cancer. She was 55.
Angela Lansbury gets a rare chance to portray a sexy character, playing the town madam, Minnie Littlejohn, who also happens to be Will Varner’s “lady love”. The prolific Lansbury had by this point made countless films and enjoyed success on both stage and screen. She would later play King’s mama in Blue Hawaii and appear opposite Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. One of the most revered and celebrated actresses in history, she is perhaps most loved for her television portrayal of Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote. As of this writing, Ms. Lansbury lives on, aged 93. I mention Richard Anderson only because he will always be Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man. There’s a gang of “rednecks” that always seem to be loafing around town and they are portrayed by actors with familiar faces. J. Pat O’Malley was a prolific voice actor in Walt Disney films and you’ve probably seen his face in countless television episodes. Val Avery had a long career and can be seen in King Creole, The Magnificent Seven, Hud, Papillon, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Donnie Brasco.
I rented The Long, Hot Summer from my local video store (Jumbo Video) when I was a teenager. I loved it. I loved Ben Quick and to this day I sometimes hook my thumbs in my back pockets like he does. Also, when driving on a bumpy road, I often say I’m going to get a “fallen kidney” like Eula does near the beginning of the picture. Although when I first saw him I thought he looked odd, I loved Orson Welles’ performance and I still do. The thing that always intrigued me most though was the relationships depicted in the film. There is so much going on here, some of it very heavy.
Alan infuriates me. The Stewart’s have lived in the region longer than the Varner’s and this riles Will. But it looks as if the Stewart line is about to end. There’s a hilarious scene at the Varner table where Alan refers to his mother as “a widow”. Will scoffs at this, loudly stating that Alan’s father is not dead, he simply wandered off one day. This leaves Mrs. Stewart alone and she dotes on Alan like he was 9 years old. Alan winces at this treatment but does nothing about it. Alan’s sister, Agnes (Sarah Marshall), is Clara’s good friend and an old maid in-waiting. Clara and Alan have been dating for five years – since Clara was 18. Alone on the porch one night, Clara tells Alan that girls also think about sex and that she is anxious about her love life. She talks about nature taking it’s course hoping Alan will take the hint. But he doesn’t. Will and Ben both see clearly that limp Alan is never going to make a play and that dating him is a waste of time for Clara. After the conversation gets heated during Clara’s picnic lunch with Ben, Alan walks up to escort her home. When Clara presses Alan about their future he lamely apologizes for wasting her young years and they break it off. Through a misunderstanding, Will thinks things being “settled” with Clara and Alan mean they are getting married. In a hilarious scene, Will bombs over to the Stewart’s in his jeep and sits down to coffee, telling Alan’s surprised mother that “it’s all in the family, Mother!”. When Will finds out he’s wrong, he blows his stack, tells Mrs. Stewart to shut up, calls Alan a “sissy” and smashes a glass table. Had this been Tennessee Williams or William Inge, I feel like Alan would have been the closeted homosexual so often found in stories by those two playwrights.
Early in the film Eula states that as for fun things to do in Frenchman’s Bend “there are none”. As a result, Jody and Eula spend the bulk of their time in connubial bliss. Jody exalts when Eula comes back from a shopping trip to Memphis and is soon wrestling with her on the bed. When poor, down-on-his-luck, looking-for-a-job Ben shows up, Jody plays boss man and wheels and deals with him, calling Ben “boy”. Jody shoos Eula away with a pat on the butt saying “the men are talking”. Jody later runs back upstairs to continue frolicking. Big shot. But as Ben begins to take Jody’s position in the town, Jody loses face with Eula. When Jody is home, lolling on the porch when he should be working, Eula gently scolds him. Jody responds by giving her the eye but she shuts him down, emphatically telling him “no!“. This crushes Jody. Ben’s encroachment has cost Jody in the boudoir, as well.
Jody’s relationship with his father is tough to watch. Will is flat-out hard on Jody and for no apparent reason. Will seems to feel that Jody has not measured up to the standard of hard, cold, exacting business practices, skullduggery and swindles that Will has put down all these years. When Ben shows up and Will sees a mirror image of himself he revels in Ben’s flint-eyed operating. A turning point comes when Jody pulls a gun on Ben. Since you showed up, everything in my life has gone down the drain, Jody says, and now they’re gonna find your body in the river. To get out of getting shot, Ben tells Jody he has found bags of buried coin on his land and sells the land to Jody. Late that night, Jody is digging trenches by lamplight when his father drives up. Jody is cocky and confident telling his father he is out from under his thumb now that he has his own fortune. When Will proves to Jody he has been swindled, Jody is devastated and Will seems to genuinely ache for his son. And maybe Will has learned something here. Will himself has conned people in the past and now he is seeing the other, calamitous side of such snow jobs. It’s one of the few times we see Will behave somewhat lovingly toward his son.
Ben Quick and Will Varner are a joy to watch together. As Clara says, “one wolf recognizes another”. Ben and Will delight in each other’s audacity. In one exchange, Ben says to Will “you ain’t nothin’ better than a crook” to which Will responds “well, you ain’t nothin’ better than a con man” and both men are obviously complimenting each other. When Will suggests that Ben marry Clara, right away Ben sees barrels of money and unlimited access to Clara’s charms. This is still Mercenary Ben; he’s ready to cash in. It’s interesting, though, to note that, while Ben has been pursuing Clara, when it is what Will wants, Ben bristles. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem exactly right. In small increments, Clara is having an effect on Ben.
Clara reads Ben right from the outset and she’s bang on right about him. Ben perhaps senses this which makes his pursuit all the more challenging. The viewer does well to keep in mind that – all his life – Ben has been incorrectly judged and it is this that has made him hard. In conversation with her friend, Agnes, Clara makes it clear that she has a desire for a man and marriage, even saying that she is not all that “fussy”. But Ben is too much like her father. Clara says that all her life she’s known men (ie, her father) that “push, shove, shout (and are) aggressive” and she makes it clear she does not want those traits in a suitor.
Whenever Will talks to Clara about her late mother, though, you can see Clara visibly soften. She obviously loved her mother and – just like her mother – Clara is possessed of an ability to find the good at the core of a blowhard, to nurture that good and to bring it to the fore. Clara’s mother did that with Will; maybe Clara can do this too.
Also, I think it’s clear that Clara is somewhat attracted to Ben. One night as she strolls home late from work, she deliberately walks by the store where she knows Ben is working alone. Now, why does she go into the store and engage Ben when she knows they will be alone? After she succumbs heartily to Ben’s kiss she regrets showing her desire and calls Ben a barn-burner. Ben recoils and throws her out. The animal in Clara wants Ben but the sensible woman knows he would be too much work; as he is, he’s not worth having. This is exactly the theme at the pivot point of the story arc in the television show Moonlighting. David Addison (Bruce Willis) aroused Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) but he was a boor and she didn’t want to fall for such a guy.
Will enlightens Ben about Clara. She is like her mother, Will says, smart and possessing quality: “As close as you and I will ever come to it”. Will is acknowledging that he and Ben are a couple of rogues but Clara is good. If Clara’s mother can “fix” Will, Clara can fix Ben. And it is after Will and Clara have a talk about Clara’s mother that she discovers Ben in trouble.
The Varner barn is ablaze and the townfolks are looking for Ben, assuming he is to blame. Clara recuses him in her Lincoln. Why? She is starting to dig for the good in Ben. Sure enough, once safe from the lynch mob, Ben lets down his guard with Clara and waxes emotional about his old man, the barn burner, and how he met his demise. Quick is my name, Ben says, I can’t change that but people won’t let me be. Clara encourages him to make the changes he needs to make.
The barn burns and Will yells for help – “at least let the horses out!” – while Jody sobs that he is “not sorry”. It doesn’t take long, though, before Jody has a change of heart and frees Will. The two embrace and Will ponders Jody’s ability to redeem himself and the two are reconciled. Will announces to those gathered that he himself accidentally started the blaze with his cigar.
As the fire is extinguished, Ben and Clara talk on the porch. Suddenly, Ben sees the quality in Clara that her father had hinted at. “You’re a hard-headed, soft-hearted woman, Miss Clara, and I like you a lot”, Ben says. He adds that he is turning his back on millions of dollars by “letting Clara go” and not forcing their union. “You couldn’t tame me”, he says, “but you taught me”.
Will arrives on the porch fresh from supervising the dousing of the fire accompanied by Minnie. Ben says he is leaving and Will is apoplectic; he can’t believe Ben is turning down all he was offered. Ben says he’s learned something about respecting people. Ben goes to pack his suitcase and Clara stops him. Ben and Clara kiss and their laughter is mingled with the sounds of the renewed fervour between Jody and Eula. Will hears the sounds of joy in his home and is satisfied that he will soon be a grandfather. “I like life”, he says to Minnie and, significantly because their affair had been on the down low, he enters the front door of his home with his arm around his lady love.
As much as I hate it when a movie ends, there is much satisfaction in watching the finale of this depiction of one long, hot summer in Mississippi