The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

The_Long,_Hot_SummerAs it turns out, Paul Newman’s a real barn burner. His family name is synonymous with conflagrations and it’s a great entry point for a character, in this case, a drifter named Ben Quick who’s run out of town by the local judge.

We never actually know if he was guilty of arson or not but we assume he must be. And so even with the audience, Quick carries that onus because the reputation seems to fit him. He’s a leering no-good, not to be trusted with money or women. It’s all speculation, mind you, though it cuts pretty close to the truth.

He receives some southern hospitality when a car screeches to a stop to pick him up. In the passenger’s seat is Eula (Lee Remick) with a coaxing sensuality accentuated by a sing-song twang that’s irresistible. More reserved is the driver, Clara (Joanne Woodward), who sees through Quick just like most people. She’s not about to be taken in by his animal magnetism.

This is just the beginning of a vast family drama and the names we have to thank are director Maritn Ritt, still trying to get his head above water after a blacklisting, and screenwriting stalwarts Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr.

Their tale was realized by weaving together three stories by William Faulkner that I have no prior knowledge of, matched with the atmospherics of a Tennessee Williams sweaty drama. In fact, it was released before a couple films that share more than superficial similarities, namely the well-remembered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) also starring Newman, this time opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. Then, there was God’s Little Acre (1958) which was probably the quirkiest and most erratic of the trio starring Robert Ryan as the head of the family.

Arguably, there’s no larger-than-life figure than Orson Welles to take the part of the portly patriarch of the Varner clan, Will, a man who puts his stamp on the local town. After a stint in the hospital with ailments, he comes back in fashion, sirens howling, so everyone knows that the king has returned. First, it’s a visit to his mistress (Angela Lansbury) who’s anxious to get married so she can have more stability. His responses remain evasive.

The Louisianna heat is no fluke and Welles is perpetually perspiring. He lends an earthiness to the proceedings that undoubtedly takes some cues from Ritt. Will Varner laughs boisterously at the catcalls of young boys directed towards his daughter-in-law, just as he conspires to get his other daughter hitched up so grandchildren can start popping out. In this regard, he’s very pragmatic (if not misogynistic). He wants heirs to maintain the family name because his gutless son certainly isn’t going to be the one to do it.

While important to the stability of the picture, by all accounts, Welles was a terror to work with for everyone on set. There are multiple indications of why this might have been. It’s all too probable he felt pressured and slightly insecure with the young upstarts coming on the scene from the Actor’s Studio, including Marlon Brando and his current co-star Paul Newman. Alternatively, with Welles being the renowned directorial power that he was, there was probably some dissatisfaction on his part because he couldn’t pull all the strings and have total control like he was normally accustomed to.

However,  put him together in a room with Paul Newman and you have two men in front of you as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks. Varner’s perceptive daughter puts it aptly, “One wolf recognizes another.” Soon they strike up a mutually beneficial deal throwing other people and lives around like they were pawns in a chess match to solely serve the two of them.

Varner wants a form of southern immortality. Males to bear his name and people to sing his praises and tame the land in a sprawling estate with spoils to match what he has accumulated over his lifetime. Quick, why, he just wants money and land and whatever else he can finagle out of the old man. What unites them is they’re both out for number one.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward go on their first cinematic date together and it’s a picnic in the park that ends prematurely. In real life, they would get married soon after principal photography wrapped and as they say, the rest was history. They stayed married for another 50 years until Newman’s passing in 2008. For a Hollywood marriage, this has to be some kind of record.

But regardless of what was going outside the frame, what is within the confines of the space is just as enchanting for the simple reason that they make some amount of palpable magic together. There’s a tension between them but then a certain attraction and pull that leads to oscillation back and forth in a continuous orbit of gravitation and then distaste.

In real life, it’s not what leads to stable romance but in film, it’s what dreams are made of because every sequence has an intangible undercurrent of spiritedness. It’s in the eyes twinkling. The unspoken words along with the spoken ones. Maybe it’s a lot of making something out of nothing but I would like to think it isn’t. They have something electric together.

Just as the film opened with fire, it’s another barn burning that ends the picture and gets the town in a tizzy. The irony is the very event that looks to be a dramatic firecracker actually reconciles a father and son. That’s the thing about The Long Hot Summer; it has the guts — some might say the gall — to end on an optimistic note without plunging into the throes of deep dark tragedy. Sometimes the 50s dramas take it too far. It’s almost as if they forget some of the greatest dramas historically were as much comedy as they were tragedy.

With so much talent, I’m inclined to like this one and since it all but led the pack coming out of the gates, it deserves some kudos. But best of all, the partnership between Martin Ritt, Ravitch, Frank, and Newman was just beginning, not to mention a marriage for the ages. It’s part of the reason why one can come away from The Long Hot Summer with a smile as wide as Will Varner’s.

3.5/5 Stars

Paris Blues (1961)

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I’m the first to admit I’m no jazz connoisseur but I dig it. In this age that we now live in of shuffling and song roulette — where the single has surged passed a cohesive album in terms of singular importance — there has been some small amount of education going on for me.

Awareness of some of the classics is starting to set in. There’s recognition of a few of the heavy hitters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and of course Duke Ellington. When we hear even the briefest interludes of “Take The A Train” we will grab a hold of it. Ellington provided the score for Paris Blues including some of his beloved classics and they couldn’t be more fitting.

Because Martin Ritt’s film is hot when it comes to jazz — you can feel it wafting through the air and giving an added layer of sensuality to the already romantic milieu of the Parisian streets. This is a propitious factor married with the fact the picture also takes its shoot right to the streets of Paris, even filling out the cast with a few native supporting players.

Less than a decade before, we had Roman Holiday (1953) and now we have something that might just do the same for France, except with an extra flavoring of brass and a rhythm section. The cast couldn’t be better with two of Ritt’s former students from their Actor’s Studio days, power couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Equally compelling is another legendary leading man in Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll as beautiful and sophisticated as ever. I admire them all.

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However, in translating the source material to the silver screen, you could easily say the story lost most of its clout. Harold Flender’s original novel was about two interracial romances between two vacationing Americans and two expatriate jazz musicians working in Paris. However, this was Hollywood in 1961. Although the script teases the original storyline when Ram Bowen (Newman) comes onto Connie Lampson (Carroll) on an inbound train, it was not meant to be — quickly brushed off for more conventional demarcations.

Believing the public was still not ready for such portrayals, the studio got cold feet and smoothed things out by making sure everyone ended up with their “kind.” It’s Lillian Corning (Woodward) who gets starstruck with the trombone player and her friend eventually softens to the handsome saxophonist Eddie Cook (Poitier).

Acknowledging this grievance, the only thing that makes me mildly okay with the change is that the husband and wife duo of Newman and Woodward get paired opposite each other so we see real-life romance partially channeled into the movie. While the four leads look great together and there’s indubitable chemistry, somehow it still feels like something is missing.

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Louis Armstrong leading a parade of brass into the jazz club is a shining moment full of uninhibited synergy that fills up the underground space in the most joyous of fashions. As he always does, Wild Man Moore brings down the house. But the real issue is the lack of pizzazz outside these performances.

The story meanders without creating enough interludes ripe with meaning. They’re either cutesy momentary snapshots of lovebirds in Paris or understated pieces of human drama. Not by any means bad but what the picture might have used were some sustained sequences of action in places where it floundered. Most vividly I can recall the Vespa ride through the streets or even the party which is raided by the local police which helped make Roman Holiday a landmark.

There is nothing so memorable here. Instead, some characters leave on the train they arrived on and others stay behind. Musical aspirations and romance are continuously being weighed. Whether we care that deeply about any of it is up for debate.

Worst of all, these issues are only exasperated by the fact that the story no longer has one of Martin Ritt’s finest attributes, a theme of social importance. Because in a Pre-Civil Rights age, Paris Blues could have been a much more moving statement; instead, it’s a middling love story.

Poitier gets one conversation with Carroll where he candidly vocalizes that in Paris he’s a man or he’s a musician. To borrow someone else’s words, “he’s judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character” and even more so by his artistry. It spawns a minor spat but the opportunity to make a statement — a statement without the utterance of words even — was lost before it even began. Perhaps the wasted potential hurts more than anything. Like the musicians at its core, Paris Blues is ultimately a lightweight.

3/5 Stars

No Down Payment (1957)

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When a film seems to materialize in front of you coming out of nowhere and subsequently moves you, it seems worthy to try and champion it to others who might also be pleasantly surprised. But first, I believe an acknowledgment of director Martin Ritt is in order because I’m not sure how much adulation he usually gets amid the myriad of prominent Hollywood workhorses out there.

Though he first started out in the theater and then television during The Red Scare years, Ritt ultimately transitioned to movies with a body of work full of variety that has all but stood the test of time on numerous accounts. Highlights include a six-film collaboration with Paul Newman including the likes of The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Paris Blues (1961), Hud (1963, and Hombre (1967). Other noteworthy successes many will know are The Spy Who Came in From The Cold (1965), Sounder (1972), and Norma Rae (1979).

He is most definitely an adherent to progressive, socially conscious filmmaking that, while never flashy in formalistic aspects, is nevertheless, chock full of depth for its commitment to humanist storytelling. It’s meant to ring true and touch on subjects that pertain to real people and the world-at-large captured through a lens of stark realism. To his credit, Ritt would never claim the title “Auteur” because he himself spent time as an actor and understood how collaborative such an art form is.

That brings us to the picture at hand, No Down Payment, which while being one of his earlier directorial efforts for film, already has his sensibilities in place. There’s nothing flashy about the picture per se but it readily digs into issues that feel uncommon and cutting edge for the very fact that we rarely see them portrayed in the 1950s. This film provides a very special opportunity and I was more than happy to oblige.

To put it succinctly, our story takes place in the residential neighborhood of Sunrise Hills. What we get is a disillusioning portrait of 1950s suburbia specifically in Los Angeles, that beacon of post-war middle-class living, observing the overlapping existence of four couples.

I enjoy how everything seems to be underlined by party chatter, Cowboys and Indians on the television, and groovy rockability — all integral parts of the ubiquitous soundtrack of the suburbs. But there’s also a veneer with two layers. The outward-facing street view with white picket fences and barbeques with the neighbors and then what’s actually going on, either when the doors are closed or when you can’t contain it anymore and rancor slowly asserts itself. Underneath we also soon realize that everybody is afraid of something.

A young couple just moving in is brought into the fold of the community. The husband (Jefferey Hunter) works as an up-and-coming electrical engineer while his pretty wife (Patricia Owens) urges him to get in a more lucrative field like sales so they can grow their social status.

If your image of Tony Randall is a nice guy or a hypochondriac, try on a philandering day drunk car salesman for size. Jerry Flagg constantly has his wife Isabelle (Sheree North) exasperated because he’s always strapped for cash and never dependable, with aspirations that keep him constantly flocking to the next big idea. Of course, he’s never able to see any of them to fruition.

Arguably, the least done up of any of the husbands is Troy (Cameron Mitchell), a war hero and Tennessee native who currently works as a car mechanic but soon hopes to be brought on as the local police chief. In fact, he’s banking on it. His wife, Leola Boone (Joanne Woodward) is intent on it as well since he’s promised they can have a child once he has greater job stability. She’s tried to bury painful memories of the baby she was once forced to give away. They too are plagued by marital bickering and late night alcohol consumption.

Last of all is Herman Kreitzer (prolific TV actor Pat Hingle) and his wife Betty (Barbara Rush). While she takes the children to church on Sunday, he stays at home and washes his car out on the street. Otherwise, there’s little discord in the house as he’s a loving husband and father who runs an appliance store and is a member of the local homeowner’s board.

Ritt’s picture, with yet another script fronted by Philip Yordan and actually written by Ben Maddow, has innumerable topics of interest. However, two that were the most intriguing to me had to do with the Kreitzers. Because it just so happens that Herman’s best employee, a man named Iko (Japanese-American though played by Aki Aleong), requested help in getting his family a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. As is, he currently has a taxing commute to work every day.

And though Herman is a good man, he’s hesitant to get involved knowing full well that housing developments have long been run by de facto laws of segregation. L.A. was like any other area where African-Americans were in places like Watts and Japanese-Americans were concentrated in Little Tokyo and even Boyle Heights for a time. That’s just the way it was. You stayed with your kind.

People wouldn’t like it one bit. Off the top of his head, he knows Troy, who fought in the Pacific, wouldn’t be too keen on a “Japanese” living in the neighborhood. So Herman ultimately brings the conversation to his church-going wife who voices similar apprehension (“Do you think you’re ready to have a Japanese as a neighbor?”). It’s this conversation over the kitchen table that causes him to reconsider. Because you see we already know he’s not a churchgoer and part of the reason we can guess has to do with the hypocrisy that is often so easy to find fault with.

That brings us back to Iko and his family. As Herman sees it, what good is a church if it doesn’t lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. How can you say you’re a “Good Christian” and not do anything to help these people? The issue is hardly resolved then and there but it’s a start. At least, in this case, we get the hint of closure in the end. Other threads aren’t nearly as sanguine.

It’s fitting that we return to an establishing shot of that perfect piece of the suburbs and all our main players are at church the following Sunday. Except for one, it means a long drive in a taxi cab to who knows where. While the others will make a go of trying to preserve their dreams, this lonely individual’s exodus is a reminder of how quickly our aspirations can crumble.

4/5 Stars