The Long, Hot Summer (1958) is a sticky Southern drama based on a combination of works by William Faulkner. It’s very much in the vein of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which came out just a few months later and, of course, also starred Paul Newman. Here, Newman plays Ben Quick, a drifter expelled from his previous town after being suspected of burning down a barn. He has the good fortune to catch a ride from Eula (Lee Remick) and Clara (Joanne Woodward), whose father, Will (Orson Welles), basically owns the town.
Upon meeting Ben, patriarch Will becomes a little bit smitten with the hardworking, ambitious fellow—and who wouldn’t? Those dimples!—and eyes him as a possible heir to his throne, in place of his amiable but gutless son, Jody (Anthony Franciosa). To get him locked into the family though, Will must matchmake like he’s never matchmade before, and convince uptight schoolmarm Clara to ditch her current mama’s boy beau (the zero) and get with this handsome loner (the hero). Not to spoil things, but a.) it’s Paul Newman, so this shouldn’t be much of a question, and b.) we literally have this movie to thank for Woodward and Newman finally getting together in real life and bringing untold beauty in this world through their union.
As I mentioned, director Martin Ritt’s film is a gorgeous example of Cinemascope filmmaking. The scope of the frames are utilized extremely carefully, and every inch of the extra area is used well, either through filling it with positive subjects or with intentional negative space. This is definitely one of those movies where watching a cropped pan-and-scan would totally hinder your perception of the film.
When Ben first arrives into town, his loner status is emphasized by his framing; he frequently appears dead center of the frame, empty space to either side. Really, only the width of a Cinemascope screen could even come close to properly framing Paul Newman in all his 1958 glory:
Luckily, Ben and Clara do finally start edging towards one other, emotionally and cinematographically, and balance is restored:
By the way, fans of the Gilmore Girls will instantly recognize a certain plot point lifted from this film: it involves a picnic basket auction, a charming bad boy, a maybe-interested good girl, and her dopey boyfriend. Seriously, Paul Newman has stolen all of your best moves before you even knew about them.
The Long, Hot Summer is a wonderful entry in Cinemascope history. It might not have utilized the breathtaking scale of The Bridge of the River Kwai, or the special effects of Forbidden Planet, but it uses the widescreen in a different way: to emphasize the development of its characters. Plus, the world must be grateful to the exact moment in cinematic technology that allowed this to happen:
Emily Rauber is a connoisseur of shirtless Paul Newman, and writes about classic movies at her blog, The Vintage Cameo.