Movies you love are often not the best movie you’ve ever seen, but rather a movie that strikes a chord at a particular time in your life, or triggers a fond memory, or has a special significance.
And The Long Hot Summer is all of those things to me, so before I launch into my celebration of this steamy Southern melodrama made in 1958, and explain why it’s so close to my heart, I should first explain a little bit about myself….
Without getting too long and anecdotal, I’m a romance junkie, and in my other life I write steamy romance novels for Mills and Boon and this is the movie that first turned me on to the wonders of bad boys, and romance, and Paul Newman in his prime when I was an impressionable and hormonally charged 13-year-old. So basically, it’s got a lot to answer for!
Now, I should point out second of all (because I’m a bit vain) that I wasn’t 13 in 1958, rather I blagged my way in to see this movie at the NFT on London’s South Bank (now known as BFI Southbank) one lazy summer day in the 1970s… but sitting in the darkened theatre pretty much alone… I can still remember how it totally blew me away.
Why? Well, okay I admit it, I wasn’t completely immune to the gorgeousness of Paul Newman who is at his moody and magnificent best in this movie. I mean, let’s face it, sonnets could have been written about the guy’s chiselled cheekbones, his lean, muscular build and, of course, those unfathomable blue eyes…
But that’s only a small part of the reason why I left the cinema that day with my heart pounding.
For starters, the premise (very loosely based on a William Faulkner story) is a romance junkie’s dream: As Ben Quick, a drop-dead gorgeous drifter with a dangerous reputation, Newman is the quintessential bad boy. All smouldering sexuality, mercenary charm and devil-may-care arrogance (have I got you drooling yet?), he swaggers into Clara Varner’s sleepy Southern town in the middle of a heat wave and promptly lights a bonfire under Clara’s well-ordered life by making a Faustian bargain with Clara’s daddy Will – a blustering southern demagogue who wants to see his only daughter wedded and bedded and making grandbabies. Will is a self-made man (fabulously overacted by a jobbing Orson Welles) who sees in Ben a lean, hungry wolf who’s a chip off the old block. A man who’ll do anything to get what he wants – including seduce a woman into marriage for a share of her daddy’s fortune.
But Clara’s a smart woman with principles. She’s wise to her father’s schemes and she’s determined not to fall for Ben even though he can make her hormones do the hula. Clara has integrity with a capital I, which is something Ben doesn’t understand, and she’s not going to give in to him (or her hormones)…. until she sees a chink in Ben’s armour. Maybe he’s not as self-assured and ruthless as he pretends to be? Maybe there’s something worth taming behind all that swaggering sex appeal… Time for a great big Ahhhh.
But quite apart from the fabulous characters and all the sizzling sexual tension their story creates what really made this movie stand out for me that long ago summer, was the casting and the real-life love story behind it. Because as well as a young Paul Newman in all his glory we have a young Joanne Woodward, cast opposite him as Clara at the exact moment when the two of them were falling in love for real. Time for another great big Ahhhh.
When I walked out of the cinema that long-ago summer, I set my heart on marrying Paul one day. Needless to say I was a little miffed to discover he was already taken (and old enough to be my dad), but when I found out he’d married Clara I was prepared to take it on the chin… Because it was obvious they were meant to be together and the evidence was all right there in glorious Technicolor.
So now, whenever The Long Hot Summer is showing on telly I always make a point of watching it… And I can happily ignore the sometimes cheesy screenplay and even second lead Tony Franciosa’s atrocious Southern accent and just sit back and wait for the scene when Paul’s Ben says to Joanne’ s reluctant Clara:
“All right then run lady, and keep on running. Buy yourself a bus ticket and disappear. Change your name, dye your hair, get lost – and then maybe, just maybe you’re gonna be safe from me.”
Then I’ll feel the familiar shiver run down my spine, and I’ll remember exactly why it is I love writing romance. And that’s why I love The Long Hot Summer….