The Long, Hot Summer Review

When Ben Quick (Paul Newman) is suspected of setting a rival's barn on fire, he has to leave town. He finds himself in Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi, a town dominated by the Varner family, whose patriarch is Will (Orson Welles). Will wishes to ensure his family's future, but he thinks his son Jody (Anthony Franciosa) is a weakling and seemingly unable to sire children with his wife Eula (Lee Remick) and Will's daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) shows no signs of getting married. Ben is employed by Jody, and Will thinks he might make good husband material for Clara...

The Long, Hot Summer is based on work by William Faulkner, the short stories “Barn Burning” and “The Spotted Horses” and the novel The Hamlet. Faulkner, a Nobel Prizewinner, is one of the most distinguished novelists ever to work as a Hollywood scripter, but the script of this film is the work of husband-and-wife duo Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. This was their first collaboration with director Martin Ritt, whose third feature this was after making his name in television. This director/scriptwriters partnership continued regularly until 1989's Stanley & Iris, the last credit for all three of them. (Ritt died in 1990, Ravetch in 2010. Frank, born 1917, is still alive as I write this.) The trio tackled Faulkner again the following year, with The Sound of the Fury, which also starred Joanne Woodward. They worked with Paul Newman twice more, giving him a defining role in 1963's Hud and also in 1967's Hombre. The Long, Hot Summer was also where Newman and Woodward met. They were married in 1958 and had one of Hollywood's most enduring marriages, lasting fifty years until Newman's death.

Given the title and the Deep South setting, The Long, Hot Summer has a laid-back, languorous feel to it, but it's as tight enough as it needs to be, with plenty of pleasures for the audience in th acting, the often humorous dialogue, Joseph LaShelle's camerawork (in colour and CinemaScope) and the art direction (Maurice Ransford and Lyle R. Wheeler) and costume design (Adele Palmer). Newman has top billing – and he's in prime sexy bad-boy mode, so it's easy to see why the women in the story are attracted to him – but the film is better seen as an ensemble piece. Woodward is saddled with some unsubtle hairstyling (a severe bun = suppressed passions, get it?) but does well as a young woman who knows she has plenty to give to the right man, but is willing to wait for the right one to come along. Franciosa has the more thankless part of the beta-male who resents Ben Quick's presence and has definite issues with his father. Orson Welles gives a much broader performance than the rest, his scenes with his lady love Minnie (Angela Lansbury) often serving as comic relief. Only a too-abrupt ending doesn't satisfy.

The Long, Hot Summer is a product of a time when the Production Code was beginning to loosen and be challenged, in a decade-and-a-third between Joe Breen's retirement as head of the Hays Office and the Code's abandonment in favour of a ratings system in 1968. Therefore we get some only-slightly-daring sexual references along the way. I doubt this was hot stuff even in 1958: the BBFC gave it an A certificate without cuts back then, and it earns a PG nowadays.


Optimum's DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. Unusually for one of their barebones back-catalogue discs, it's dual-layered.

The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1 (slightly wider than the original 2.35:1) and anamorphically enhanced. This is a solid transfer, with the colours stable and suitably vibrant. (Skin tones have that heightened and slightly waxy look common to many 50s and 60s films shot on Eastman stock.) I spotted some slight aliasing on some fence posts nine minutes in. Grain is natural and filmlike.

According to the IMDB, the film was released with a four-track magnetic stereo soundtrack. I do not know if that survives or not, but the sound mix on this DVD is definitely mono, as would have been heard in the majority of cinemas, those showing 35mm prints with optical soundtracks. It's mixed quite low, so I had to turn the volume up quite a bit, but dialogue, music and sound effects are as well balanced as they should be. As you might expect, but regret, there are no English subtitles available.

The only extra is a very dark and faded theatrical trailer (2:36) which trades rather a lot on how daring the film is. “No-one could tell the naked truth about these people better than Faulkner, in his own language, in his own frankness!” It's presented in widescreen-enhanced 1.85:1, and looks slightly anamorphically squeezed.

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