If Ben Quick (Paul Newman) looks like trouble, that could be because those looks are not deceptive, as he has already been run out of one town on suspicion of burning a barn in retaliation for a dispute with a neighbour. He decides to cut his losses and hop on the next boat down the Mississippi, where he alights in the county of Frenchman's Bend, a place he believes he can set up as a farmer once again, and maybe this time things will work out. On his way to the town, he is picked up by two women in a car who give him a lift; they are both related to the most powerful man around, Will Varner (Orson Welles), being his daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) and Eula (Lee Remick), the wife of his son Jody (Anthony Franciosa). Clara is not impressed...
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was sure to be a major success, so how better than to accompany it than with its star Paul Newman in another Deep South melodrama, this time based on William Faulkner rather than Tennessee Williams? That said, the influence of the latter, who had fast become a byword for racy but lauded material, was all over the script by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr which looked to be a deliberate pastiche of Williams' style with only a glancing recognition of Faulkner's source, and so it was that audiences wanting more of the same from Newman were not disappointed, making this one of the big hits of its year and securing him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his trouble.
Not that it was an easy shoot, mainly because of Orson Welles. He had a habit of posing as superior on the films he made that he did not direct himself, and with this he was worse than ever, surly and cantankerous, not to mention unintelligible in his approximation of a Southern twang that the cast were saddled with. Buried under a ton of makeup and severely overweight, frankly he looked terrible here, and while his big personality went a long way to saving his performance, the fact remained he resembled an overripe ham, both in stylings and appearance. He would go on to complain his experience here was possibly the worst of his professional life, and it certainly marked the beginning of his enforced work in other people's pictures, any he could find, to raise funds for his own.
If there was an overriding visual motif in The Long Hot Summer, it was, as the title suggested, the heat, and that sweat coating everyone was not makeup, it was genuine, making them all appear less sultry and more uncomfortable, itching to get into a cold shower. It was exhausting just watching them trying to act in the high temperatures, but one thing Newman and Woodward had in their favour was that they were falling in love while making this, though even so for too much of the time Woodward was hard-faced and paradoxically frosty, which did not make her the most appealing of leading ladies; nothing to do with the actress, it was down to the character, and though she thawed predictably by the end, her screamingly tight bun hairdo did her few favours. She fared better than Angela Lansbury, who had to convincingly lust after Welles who as the patriarch was more cliché than living, breathing person.
Lee Remick conveyed the sexuality of the milieu rather more effectively, but she was sidelined as Eula, in spite of seeming important in the early stages. Yet that was a problem with the whole enterprise: it offered the illusion of plenty going on, but then when you started to examine it you'd notice not very much was happening at all, it was merely the cast going through the motions as dictated by Martin Ritt, a director making his comeback after suffering in the Blacklist. He certainly put everyone through their paces, though Anthony Franciosa's neurotic tendencies from real life were ill-advisedly channelled into his performance that took Jody's mental imbalance to ludicrous heights of overacting, as if he was making up for the others' more laconic approach. But it remained Newman's film, really, he was so confident in his charisma by this point that he was commanding the screen even when he wasn't doing anything, or very little, so no matter that it was intended as an ensemble piece, whenever he was in a scene you had the feeling you were watching something masterful, overpowering the laziness of the material. That's the mark of a great star. Music by Alex North.