Saturday, May 14, 2011

Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)

Deep, haunting domestic melodrama about a moderately wealthy family on the verge of collapse, due to the son's progressing battle with tuberculosis, and the mother's resulting insanity and paranoia. The whole of the film takes place in their Connecticut cottage, where the mother, Mary, has secured herself in an attempt to keep reality at bay, and her delusions to run wild. Her primary concern, and reason for instability, is the gnawing thought that her youngest son is on the verge of death, but we learn, as the story progresses, that there are other causes for her troubles. The rest of the family stands idly by and watches its deterioration: the father, a stuffy, British actor, refuses to take any stand, save for coddling his wife and her delirious fantasies, and their other son is a lush, seemingly street-wise, yet completely awash in incompetence and self-pity. As the day goes on, their various tensions, concerns, and insecurities abound, and reveal themselves; while the action is moderately reigned in, there is no doubt that the events that transpire leave the characters remarkably haunted by the end.

This is an early film by the late, great Sidney Lumet, and it shows in his staging; rather than hide the fact that the film is a literal adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play, he uses long takes and wide shots to keep the geography and physical dynamics of the play on full display, but is unafraid to cut from an all-encompassing wide to a stark, intimate close-up. The film is shot in magnificent black and white, and has that old Hollywood feel that complements the more confrontational, emotionally cutting dialogue well, particularly for Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn, perfectly utilizing her legendary star status, turns in a gut-wrenching, soulful performance as the haunted matriarch, simultaneously smiley and shaky as she searches for something, anything, that she can depend on or respect. While a section of the film puts her at the forefront when, I feel, her character would have served the story better from offscreen, the performance itself is flawless, and more indicative of her talents than more lightweight fare, like The Philadelphia Story. As her husband, Ralph Richardson is all early 20th-century bluster and panache, speaking constantly, but saying very little; his clearly stagey style is a teriffic contrast with the younger men in the family, played by Dean Stockwell and Jason Robards. Stockwell is haunting as the wide-eyed innocent playing it cynical, and we wait for him to fail in keeping up with his father's ignorant cynicism and lose his tenuous grip on sensibility. Robards could play his drunken louse in his sleep, but luckily, he brings his experience with the character (he played him on Broadway) to the table, giving the most raw, physical performance in the movie; you can almost smell the whiskey on his breath. O'Neill's mannerred dialogue becomes almost a hinderence to the film, as Lumet's style is far more contemporary and revealing than O'Neill's early 20th-century prose. O'Neill also leads the narrative into one or two dead ends, where nothing new is revealed, nothing relevant is reflected upon, and the characters stagnate, which, I'm sure, was more forgivable in 1940's theater than it was in 1960's cinema. However, the director, and the actors, are comfortable enough with the material that they intuitively relay O'Neill's ideas and motifs more successfully than the actual words he put in their mouths.

Recommended for fans of the cast, or of family-driven chamber dramas. It is comparable to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in its staginess, its amalgam of old and new aesthetics, and its emotional rawness, but it is the lesser film, and does not contain the remarkable, cohesive beauty of that work.

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