In 1958, Newman was arguably at the height of his matinée idol beauty. It was the year he played Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's The Left Handed Gun and also impressed as the alcoholic Brick Pollitt in Richard Brooks' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Like the formerly mentioned Tennessee Williams play, The Long, Hot Summer is set in Mississippi and features an overbearing patriarch who's obsessed with perpetuating his dynasty.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof did at least have that gaggle of "no-neck monsters" to coo over. Here, Welles' big shot businessman Will Varner has yet to see any issue from the marriage of his ineffectual son Jody (Anthony Franciosa) to the flirtatious Eula (Lee Remick). Then there's his school-teacher daughter Clara (Woodward), who's in danger of turning into an old maid (well, she's only 23) as she engages in a fruitless pursuit of the terminally dull Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson).
The arrival of Newman's Ben Quick should have lit a match under this cauldron of frustrated passions. As we see in the pre credits sequence, Quick is a guy who enjoys a good blaze. He's a notorious barn burner who's been sent packing by his outraged neighbours, and ends up in the small town of Frenchman's Bend looking for a fresh start. The sceptical Clara thinks he looks "mean and dirty", but it's not long before he's ingratiating himself with Will, who recognises the spark of ambition that's so lacking in his own son.
Ritt went on to direct Newman in five more films, including Hud (1963) and Hombre (1967), but for me, this glossy but badly paced drama is one of their weaker collaborations. There's simply not enough screen time for real life couple Newman and Woodward, who married in January 1958 shortly before The Long, Hot Summer was released. Woodward gives the sort of intelligent and well modulated performance you'd expect from an actress who'd just won an Oscar (for The Three Faces of Eve ). However, her watchful Clara feels as though she belongs in a different movie from the scene-chewing Welles, the miscast Franciosa and the downright irritating Remick.
With a great cast, some attractive location photography by Joseph La Shelle and a lovely score from Alex North, The Long, Hot Summer should have been an enjoyable, big budget, romantic drama. But despite these positives, for much of the time the film feels as languorous as Anderson's "sissy" Alan until a burst of action in the final 15 minutes, when Welles' big "V" clumsily attempts to fix all his problems and Quick is forced to make a rapid escape.