Sunday, March 27, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Long, Hot Summer

A very fine adaptation of some of William Faulkner's short stories, The Long, Hot Summer is a tale of deceit and redemption played out in the baking heat of a Mississippi Summer. It is perhaps the best adaptation of Faulkner's work because it doesn't stick too rigidly to any one source. It is primarily based on The Hamlet but omits certain characters and generally runs smoother, all to the benefit of the film.
Starring Paul Newman as Ben Quick, an entrepreneurial young man haunted by the shadow of his father's past as a barn-burner, something which was apparently quite the no-no in the deep south, he roams from town to town looking for work until he is run off when a barn catches fire. Pitching up in the town of Frenchman's Bend, he quickly becomes involved with the family that control all of the local commerce, the Varners, led by their overbearing patriarch, Will Varner. Will is played wondrously over the top by Orson Welles, chewing through scenery like a rampaging bull elephant. Will has two heirs,Clara played by Joanne Woodward a schoolteacher he is attempting to coerce into marriage and a weak willed son called Jody who he belittles and undercuts at every turn. Will comes to see Ben as the son he wished he had, admiring his determination to better himself and not allow his family name drag him down. Before long, he attempts to bring Ben and Clara together in matrimony, much to Clara's opposition. Clara would prefer a match with Alan, a local Momma's Boy, who surely but for the censor, would be the homosexual the script hints at. Of course before long, Ben's past catches up with him but not before he has usurped Jody as a son in the heart of Will Varner.
The film is best remembered for the incendiary performance of Paul Newman, giving the character of Ben Quick a brooding intensity that is suited to the steamy atmosphere created by the stifling weather and Orson Welles overbearing patriarch. Indeed some of the best exchanges in the film are between Ben Quick and Will Varner, both actors at the top of their games.

Ben: If you're scared of me, mister, why don't you just come right out and say so? 
Will Varner: Sir, why should I be scared of you? 
Ben: 'Cause I got a reputation for being a dangerous man. 
Will Varner: You're a young dangerous man. I'm an old one. I guess you don't know who I am. I better introduce myself. I'm the big landowner, chief moneylender in these parts. I'm commissioner of elections, veterinarian, own a store and a cotton gin and a grist mill and a blacksmith shop... and it's considered unlucky for a man to do his trading or gin his cotton or grind his meal or shoe his stock anywhere else. Now that's who I am. 
Ben: You talk a lot. 
Will Varner: Well, yes I do, sir. I'm done talking to you, except for passing you on this piece of information. I built me a new jail in my courthouse this year, and if during the course of your stay, something, anything at all should just happen to catch fire, I think you ought to know that in my jail, we never heard of the words habeas corpus. You rot.

It helps that the film is so beautifully shot, with the Mississippi countryside in full bloom a site to behold. The director Martin Ritt was blacklisted for much of the 1950s and this film marked a return to the mainstream leading to a string of successful collaborations with Newman including Hud.
Joanne Woodward also stands out as Clara, giving the role a depth that the writing doesn't. Most of the female characters are underwritten though, but then this is the deep south so maybe its intentional? Either way this is a superb film, one of the best of the decade. Beautifully shot and anchored by two stunning central performances from Newman and Welles, this film elevates melodrama to grandiose family epic. Well worth a look.

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