Saturday, June 16, 2012

Long Day's Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962): 50 Screenshots and a Review

I don’t usually load pictures here of films I don’t like. I just forget about them. But sometimes it’s instructive to examine a bad film like Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) if you can point out how similar films got things right and what the differences are. And it’s important also to step back from the classics sometimes and ‘call their bluff’ so to speak; this film gets four stars in the Leonard Maltin movie guide and gives it a score of 7.8, which is way above average, yet it’s a surprisingly bad film in many ways.

The direction 
OK it’s stagy and claustrophobic: it’s the kind of film where characters go to a window, look out, talk a lot about the fog they see there, but the film never shows the fog. That needn’t be disastrous. Sidney Lumet did wonders with a similarly enclosed set on 12 Angry Men; that film was full of tension and drama. But here there’s no drama at all. There’s no sense of any presence behind the camera and his direction is plain plain plain.

The cinematography/the look of the film
Well, it’s just dull, isn’t it? The whole thing is visually boring (the copy I watched off Youtube perhaps wasn’t the best but still…). There’s a certain style of black and white photography in some ‘gritty’ American films of the 50’s and early 60’s that I find a bit of a chore. After the brightness of the 30’s and the high contrast of the 40’s (Citizen Kane, film noir) it was as if cinematographers of the 50’s wanted us to suffer a bland palette (think of most Elia Kazan or Fritz Lang or Samuel Fuller pictures). Yet if the other elements are good I can overlook it. The Miracle Worker is one example I watched recently; the brilliant performances of Anne Bancroft and the child actress, Patty Duke, made me forget the plain look of the film. Here, unfortunately, there are no such compensations. (I might add that the film is set in 1912 and that time in American history, after the Wild West but before the modern age, is one of its dullest. See East of Eden for another example. It was as if jazz music and gangsters had to come along in the 20’s and 30’s just to liven things up.)

The casting
None of the cast seem or sound Irish in any way so that makes the odd mention of the family’s Irish roots nonsensical, though that in itself is not a major problem. More of a problem is Jason Robards. He’s an actor I like very much but he’s badly miscast here. He was already 40 at this point, his face is clearly that of a mature man, yet the role requires him to be a kind of adolescent still living at home arguing with his dad.

The acting
Ralph Richardson I found the easiest of the four family members to take, perhaps because his character was the only one not addled by disease and/or self-loathing. And Dean Stockwell was pretty good. I really only know him from Blue Velvet; here, 24 years earlier, he’s very different of course, and he does at least effectively come across as a young man. Robards, as I said, simply looks out of place. And Katherine Hepburn, playing the morphine-addicted mother of the clan, is just annoying. I’m a big fan of Hepburn’s performances in the 30’s and 40’s (Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, her films with Spencer Tracy etc) but not so much from The African Queen onwards. It’s not just because she got old; she got old and cold, she lost her humour. There’s a certain dryness in her performance here, as there was in The Lion in Winter, or On Golden Pond. In Long Day's Journey into Night she’s ‘emotional’ and crazed but in an actorly way that never engages the viewer. Maybe she has too much natural nobility. In any case she singularly fails to make this pathetic figure evoke any sense of pathos in the audience. She should have watched Giuletta Masina in La Strada (1954) to see how it’s done.

The story
There is no plot. A family finds out the youngest son has got consumption, which they already suspected. That’s it; nothing else happens at all. Instead people talk and talk and talk- for nearly three hours.

The dialogue
So it’s left to the dialogue to justify the whole enterprise. Surely with this very famous play - Eugene O’Neill’s so-called masterpiece - that would be one area where the film earns its keep. But no, it doesn’t. If this were a good play, then all the other faults could be forgiven. But it simply isn’t. Characters don’t communicate or connect; they just sigh and pontificate and curse God and each other in lofty ways. The ‘revelations’ about addiction and dysfunctional families are banal and are delivered in very contrived ways. And there’s not a witty or interesting line in the whole thing. I kept on thinking of another famous play made into a black and white film in the 60’s – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf- and it kept on making me realise how uninspired the writing is here. Why on earth has this play got such a high reputation?

Left-click once on any image to enlarge

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