June 28, 2006

The Long Hot Summer (1958)

directed by Martin Ritt
screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.
adapted from a group of stories by William Faulkner

That’s what the credits apparently say. Word on the street is that the material for this movie all comes from the novel The Hamlet (1940). Alternately it’s said to be derived from two stories: Barn Burning (1939), the substance of which was incorporated into The Hamlet, and Spotted Horses (1931), which appears essentially intact as a chapter of The Hamlet. However, the character relationships and plotting are, my research tells me, a bit of a free improvisation on Faulkner rather than a direct adaptation. It felt that way, to be honest.

All I know is, it was funny at the beginning when the Hollywood violins zoomed up their golden staircase to usher in the CinemaScope title sequence, and the proud words appeared: “William Faulkner’s THE LONG HOT SUMMER,” with “William Faulkner’s” written in a suave brush script. And then someone starts crooning Alex North’s immortal song, “The Long Hot Summer as featured in Jerry Wald’s production of William Faulkner’s THE LONG HOT SUMMER.” Why was it funny? What is it that’s so ignoble about that possessive? The 1958 audience probably didn’t spontaneously laugh, like we did, when they saw it hanging smarmily above the title. Is it that the silly movie is shamelessly trying to puff itself up with absurd name-dropping? It’s not, after all, that absurd – the stories are by William Faulkner – they are William FaulknER’S. And yet there’s something about that attempt at chumminess, in the apostrophe-S, that seems false and undeserved. It’s a little glimpse of the class struggle between literature and film, which, though we’d like to think it’s been resolved, is still bitter. Film is trying, in its desperate bourgeois way, to cozy up to the aristocracy, and we’re laughing at the oafish transparency of the scheme. The irony of course is that Faulkner himself was for years a working stiff in the film industry. Money can’t buy you class, I think is the lesson, or at least is the motto behind our laughter. Oh, so this is William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet? The William Shakespeare? [long, impressed whistle].

Searched to see what anyone else has said on this subject. This guy is implying, as regards the present case, that the real idea was to capitalize on the William Faulkner brand. Well, right. That’s also embarrassing. And it can’t account for everything. You know who’s gonna love this version of The Odyssey? Homer fans. Let’s put something in there to really catch their eye, let ’em know just whose Odyssey this is.

Okay, well, that’s just silly. Obviously that’s a special case.

Oh, The Long Hot Summer? Right. It was okay. At the time I was watching it I enjoyed it more than that, but it rapidly paled in my retrospective opinion, I think primarily because the plot was so hodgepodgic.* By the end it had become clear that the depth and weight intimated by all that meaty dialogue was a bit of a mirage. During the course of the movie, though, I several times thought: “this all has an old-fashioned, conscientious, cared-for, acted quality and I admire that.” It felt like a good, invigorating evening at the theater. It was written that way, too.

And here is the thought I specifically wanted to record from my watching of this movie: This idea of how people work – people as characters who might well name the very things that define them, if caught at the right moment. This paradigm of people who fall in love with each other, and become murderous when angered, and suicidal when defeated. I understand these things making plots go, and making those amphitheatre-sitting Greeks gasp and marvel, and muse about life. But there’s something odd about this Shakespearean or whoeverean notion that if we take these army-men out of their plotted campaign and just let them sit and talk, their thoughts and feelings are worth our attention too. I’m not sure how to say this because it’s so broad. Something is strange to me about the quintessentially Hollywoodish scenes, of which this movie had several, where two characters storm and struggle against each other, through dialogue, and we are meant to feel that we are seeing something wholesomely real and earthy. Is it just me? Mind you, I don’t actually find this phenomenon troubling or confusing in practice – but during this movie I kept thinking, “but on what grounds are you trying to convince me that this matters, again? It’s something to do with ‘universal human truths,’ right?”

What is that thing, where people pace around rooms and say dramatic stuff to one another? It’s a very odd bunch of conventions. That’s all I’m saying. They did a very good job of it in this movie.

Actually, maybe the peculiarity of the insinuation that we can learn something about life from the melodramatic goings-on in a movie is a direct result of that clash between the high of literature and the low of movies. In a movie, especially a pre-70s Hollywood movie, we see every detail and are thus always aware of the artifice, of how shallow the make-believe goes. Just off-screen is a man with a megaphone; between the lines of the script there is only blank space. In a well-written book, we only see what we are intentionally shown and thus it’s possible for an author to keep alive the thought that whatever we aren’t seeing is real life in all its richness and relevance.

I guess this is one of my problems with modern theater. Or, like, whatever Chekhov is considered. Or O’Neill. Seeing people playing in costumes on a stage, the fakest of fake, doesn’t put me in a frame of mind where I’m ready to believe that the emotional grit is relevant because it’s real. If you know what I mean.

Orson Welles looked like a mess and talked like a coughing animal but I think he made the movie. Or maybe he weakened the movie by being SO huge and blustery that nobody else could compete with his presence. It may well be that the plotting felt arbitrary to me only because my focus had been drawn too far from Paul Newman, who should have been the rightful center of attention. But that said, I enjoyed Orson and I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Newman comes off as a natural and someone with a lot more potential than this movie can put on show. Joanne Woodward has a bad haircut and in general isn’t photographed very attractively, whereas Paul Newman looks great. I guess he didn’t mind, though.

Alex North’s music may also have been part of what was keeping me in an unconvinced frame of mind. He did some nice summer-heat things with a lazily tinkling piano embroidering over smooth strings, and, honestly, his song wasn’t so bad, but his dramatic scoring was too forceful. The long scored scene between Newman and Woodward in the middle culminates in some “SHE! JUST! SLAPPED! HIM!” chords that are laughable. Again, a conflict between naturalism and…that other thing. Epic-izing. What’s the word for that?

So in typing out my thoughts I seem to have exposed a common thread: the movie was essentially in the – for want of the correct word – epic style – and by epic I mean some other word entirely, suggestions please – but had some gestures toward naturalism in content and performance that didn’t mesh with that style and created awkwardness. That stylistically unsettled quality characterizes a lot of 50’s dramas, to me – as I’m typing this I’m thinking of On the Waterfront.

That I’ve ended up here is sort of interesting, in light of the (lame) Long Hot Summer DVD mini-documentary, wherein Angela Lansbury talked about the discomfort Orson Welles apparently felt on set being surrounded by all these young “method” actors, whereas he was a proponent of the “old school.” Maybe what I’m saying is that his discomfort was ours as well, and that Hollywood didn’t yet know how to make good use of “the method.”

I haven’t read any Faulkner – yeah, really – so I can’t comment on that, but obviously that would inform all of this in a valuable way. Sorry, everyone. I will.

* According to google, I am the first.


  1. Maybe this Sparknote will help you out:


    One of the very consistent themes in all your commentary on art — here, back when you saw the theater, your affection for Move Closer — and, for that matter, in our video diaries in college, or in your idea for a play — is your interest in the problem of naturalism. Any overarching thoughts you want to share?

    Posted by Adam on |

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