Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Long Hot Summer (1958)

The June heat wave, and our temporary lack of a bedroom air conditioner, caused the Siren to wake up thinking of this movie.

Paul Newman is and probably will remain the definitive movie God of Sweat. Even Brando in his prime couldn't touch Newman. Opinions differ as to which film showcases Newman's glow the best. There's Hud, but he's playing a heavy. There's Sweet Bird of Youth, but despite Newman's having the best ab-exercising scene in Hollywood history that's really Geraldine Page's movie. There's Cool Hand Luke, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and he even glistens nicely in the endless, bombastic Exodus. I'm going to plump for this one, however.

From the opening scene Newman's special ability to shine is apparent, as he stands glowering while on impromptu trial for barn-burning. Off he goes, cast out of the town, and then you get the fabulous Alex North/Sammy Cahn theme song, crooned by Jimmie Rodgers. I can still sing parts of it: "The long, hot summer, seems to know what a flirt you are ..."

Allegedly this movie is based on The Hamlet and "Barn Burning" by William Faulkner. Don't go reading those, however, thinking you will find anything remotely resembling this movie. It's more like someone cobbled together Tennessee Williams' first drafts, then threw in a dash of Oklahoma! and Picnic for good measure. Despite this weird pastiche of Southern, Western and Midwestern folkways, the script is very good indeed, full of dry humor and biting asides. The acting is pure 1950s High Method, except for Orson Welles, who steals everything but the wallpaper in a role that probably should have gone to Burl Ives.

I never fail get to a huge kick out of The Long, Hot Summer. Newman gets most of the best lines, such as when a potential lynch mob is approaching him and he says, almost plaintively, "Story of my life. Why don't nobody ever wanna talk to me peaceable?" The scenes with Joanne Woodward are full of sexual energy and incredibly romantic. The Cinemascope photography looks great, if you can see it letterboxed instead of the scan-and-pan travesties they usually show on American Movie Classics.

Despite the bizarrely happy ending, the film has a quality of sadness about it, perhaps because the countryside it shows us, before the hideous sprawl of strip malls and subdivisions took over, shrinks day by day.


Anonymous said...

I admit that I have not seen this film, however I have the others you mention. I love Paul Newman in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, his saturnine and dark disposition. The film just emanates heat.
Your description of The Long Hot Summer is so apt. Perhaps, as I am sitting near the fan, drinking gallons of water and slathering on sunscreen (this is indoor, I must add!), I can envision the scenery all the better.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me the late fifties, early sixties was the time when men glowed. Newman's Brig would have been exuding pure 86% in Cat, but Jack Carson, with his Vaselined Hair, looks wonderfully shiny too. Only the wonderful Ives seems to keep his cool.

I always try to imagine the aroma coming from that jury room in Twelve Angry [and sweaty] Men.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

This film perfectly captures mid-to-late 1950's studio movie-making (great, movie-star laden cast putting over their juicy roles with energy and distinction, gorgeous color, Cinemascope, lovely title song beautifully sold by a top pop star). I try to watch the movie every June or July, and revel in the nostalgia, fine acting, and luscious Southern ambiance director Martin Ritt manages to effortlessly convey (thanks for the fine DVD transfer, Fox).

Paul Newman really is at his best here- I think he probably deserved his 1958 Oscar nod for Summer, and maybe even the win, but Cat was the higher-profile smash hit (Summer did just fine at the box-office, though, taking in a then-fairly impressive $3.5 million in U.S. rentals- and Newman did win Best Actor at Cannes for it).