Skip to main content

Feel the Heat in The Long Hot Summer

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

Movie Poster

Paul Newman stars as Ben Quick drifter with a bad reputation.

Paul Newman stars as Ben Quick drifter with a bad reputation.

Cast

The Long Hot Summer

1 hr. 55 mins. Drama 1958 7.3 stars

Director: Martin Ritt

Cast: Paul Newman - Ben Quick

Joanne Woodward - Clara Varner

Anthony Franciosa - Jody Varner

Orson Welles - Will Varner

Lee Remick - Eula Varner

Angela Lansbury - Minnie Littlejohn

Richard Anderson - Alan Stewart

Sarah Marshall - Agnes Stewart

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Eula and Clara give Ben Quick a Ride to Town

Lee Remick, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Lee Remick, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Synopsis I

Our story opens up with a barn bursting into flames, completely engulfed and burned to the ground. Next we see the resulting trial of a man named Ben Quick. He is the only suspect, but the judge lacks sufficient evidence with which to convict him, so that judge stresses in no uncertain terms that Ben Quick leave town right away! Ben leaves and travels by barge along the Mississippi River and hops off at a town called Frenchman’s Bend. He hitches a ride with two 20 something ladies, Eula and Clara. Eula is friendly towards him; Clara is standoffish and cold towards him. They drop him off in the center of town and he notices that every establishment has the name ‘Varner’ on it. He remarks that, “Varner must be the man to see around here” as he gets out of the car and asks if they belong to him. The ladies tell him that they “particularly belong to Varner” then speed off along their way.

Ben talks to a crowd of men standing in front of the general store and asks where he can find work. They direct him to the Varner estate.

Ben hikes over to the Varner estate and talks to Clara who is sitting on the porch with her friend Agnes Stewart. Clara and Agnes have just been bemoaning their spinsterhood and the lack of decent prospects. Despite having just had this conversation with Agnes, Clara remains standoffish toward Ben. He asks to speak to the man of the house about work and Clara summons her brother, Jody (who is married to Eula). Jody agrees to let him farm a parcel of ground he feels is worthless that’s available to rent and they negotiate terms. Ben departs happy to have a roof over his head. Jody is happy, too, seeing he’ll earn something for the worthless property.

Soon all things change, Will Varner, the patriarch of the family returns home. He is a powerful man, owner of all the Varner holdings and he runs a tight ship around the estate and as he gets older he becomes more than eager for grandchildren. He has been away at a hospital for surgery and it had been a long stay, but now he is particularly fit.

When Will returns he asks for an accounting from his son, Jody. Deep inside he questions if Jody is fit to run his affairs. When Jody tells him he rented that worthless farm, Will was pleased, but when he mentioned that the new tenant was Ben Quick Will became irate. He knows of Quick’s reputation as a barn burner.

Scroll to Continue

Will immediately went to that farm and met Ben. They sized each other up. Will began to see in Ben a man who could be as shrewd and as ruthless as he was. Will offered him the task of selling off some wild horses he had acquired. Ben accepted and did a good job of it, impressing Will greatly. Will invites Ben to dinner at the Varner estate.

Will has a girlfriend in town, Minnie Littlejohn, who is eager to tie him down. Will doesn’t want to be married again; he had become accustomed to live as a widower. He was in the habit of spending liberally on Minnie, but that was not enough; what she really wanted from him was a wedding ring.

Through conversation Will indicates that he is impressed with Ben, but he also indicates that he is disappointed in his own son, Jody.

Out on the porch afterwards the local boys come around caterwauling for Eula, Jody’s wife. Eula carries herself in a sultry manner and the boys love to tease her, and of course this infuriates Jody who seems powerless to stop it. Meanwhile Clara is sitting there with her beau, Alan Stewart and talking about things of little importance. Theirs is a relationship that has stagnated. After Alan departs, Ben has a serious talk with Clara. He finds her appealing, but somewhat unapproachable.

Later on after all others have left Will approaches Clara and demands that she either marries Alan or else he will have her marry Ben – a thought she finds reprehensible! But Will wants grandchildren and he is not a patient man.

Will then employs Ben as manager in his general store, a position that is currently held by Jody! Jody feels rejected by his father who views him as useless. He goes to Eula for comfort but she pushes him away.

Will Varner and Ben Quick Size Each Other Up

Orson Welles and Paul Newman

Orson Welles and Paul Newman

Synopsis II

While Ben is working at the store one night Clara stops by to visit there and they talk. Ben kisses her and receives a strong slap across the check in return. She is attracted to him, but she doesn’t want to be, because she considers him to be a bad man. She is aware of and believes in his reputation for arson and yells “Barn burner” at him, then she storms out of the store!

Will makes a more drastic move in his efforts to try to bring Ben into the family; he has Ben move into his house. He then suggests to Ben that he should marry Clara. He also gives Ben a property known as the Old Frenchman’s Estate. He tells Ben that there is a legend about that estate which says that a retreating Civil War troop buried a treasure somewhere on that property. Ben moves into the house, a move which depresses Jody who now feels he has lost his father’s love.

The next scene is the church bazar. They had an auction in which the young ladies prepared picnic baskets to be auctioned off. The highest bidder would win the basket and a date with the girl that prepared it. Ben bid on Clara’s basket and outbid the others, namely Alan, by a large margin. Ben took Clara to a remote picnic table and had a serious but argumentative talk with her. She simply wasn’t interested. Alan came by and escorted Clara away. As Ben was walking back Jody confronted him pointing a pistol at him. Jody planned to kill Ben, but Ben showed him a gold piece, which he said he had found digging in the yard of the Old Frenchman’s Estate. Very familiar with the legend, Jody was dazzled by the prospect of finding treasure so he went with Ben to dig in the yard. Indeed Jody found treasure and Ben’s life was spared.

Later at night when Will come by looking for Jody he questioned what all the digging was for. Jody held up the sack of coins he had found and bragged that he was now richer than his father. Will burst his bubble by looking at one of the Civil War era coins and observed that it was minted in 1910. Jody had been conned by Ben who had obviously planted the sack of coins.

That night Clara told Will that everything with Alan was ‘settled’. She meant that they broke off their relationship, but Will took her words to mean that they were engaged, so early the next morning he went to Alan’s house to congratulate him and his mother. He also wanted to discuss assets he was going to give Alan for marrying Clara. When Alan explained to Will that all was over between him and Clara, Will threw a fit and stormed off in his jeep. He stopped by the store and commanded Ben to put on a suit and get ready because today he was going to marry Clara!

Will returned to his estate and went into his barn to see a new foal. While in there Jody closed and bolted the door from the outside then proceeded to light the barn on fire. He wanted to get rid of his father and wanted the blame to fall on Ben, since Ben has a reputation of being a barn burner. But Jody became overwhelmed with guilt at the idea of killing his father so he opened up the barn and rescued Will. Will forgave Jody because he has now seen some good in him.

Even though Ben is at the store, working, a mob forms and starts to move towards him because they assume he is responsible for the fire they see in the distance. Clara drives up to the store and hollers at Ben to get into her car, which he does and they are able to drive away from the crowd and to safety.

The mob is not done yet. They march out to the Varner estate and demand Ben. Will steps up and tells the mob that he started the fire, not Ben. Will said he was careless when he was lighting a cigar. That information dispersed the mob.

Ben confided in Clara that scenes and mobs like that have plagued him all his life. He opened up about his feelings and his resentment of his own father. He shares his father’s name, but it was his father, not him, who was the notorious barn burner. He had the misfortune of also sharing his father’s reputation, but not deservedly so.

Upon hearing all this Clara’s heart melts towards Ben because she sees and understands the struggle he has had with a reputation that went with his name not with his person. It becomes immediately evident that a genuine romance is beginning to bud between these two.

With that fact and Will’s reconciliation with Jody the story ends on a happy note with the prospect of good things happening in the family.

With the good feelings happening Will capitulates to Minnie’s wishes and agrees to marry her.

Ben and Clara at the Picnic. Clara Turns Down Ben's Proposal

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Analysis

Ben Quick is a man with a bad reputation - that of being an arsonist, specifically a barn burner. It’s Mississippi in the 1950s and Ben is run out of town because of a burned barn, but there is a lack of proof. Was he guilty? We aren’t told one way or the other. This is a story about a man’s reputation not his actions.

What we do know is that he is a smooth talker, a salesman type or perhaps a con man. He leaves town in the beginning of the movie and wanders to another town named Frenchman’s Bend, but it may have well been named ‘Varnerville’ because everything in that town was owned by a man named Will Varner. Will Varner was also a man with a smooth talking style. At first he is not happy that Ben Quick is in town, but he begins to cotton up to him when he meets him. In one of the key scenes of the movie, Ben tells Will that he, Will, is scared of him because he’s a dangerous man. Will says back to him, “You’re a young dangerous man; I’m an old one.” As we can see has a quick and poignant retort. They both began to realize that they were a lot alike. Driven by his desire for grandchildren, particularly shrewd grandchildren Will began to develop grandiose plans for Ben, plans that Ben couldn’t have imagined but welcomed when he found out.

Another key scene is really a double scene. The first part has Ben talking with Clara in the store at night; Clara feels that she is becoming attracted to Ben but puts a halt to that emotion and yells, “Barn burner” at him, then storms out. The second part is on the front porch of the store where Will offers Ben the job of marrying Clara. This is a proposition that blindsided Ben. Up to this point he was willing to do anything to advance in Will Varner’s businesses, but marriage into the family was beyond what he had imagined. Immediately he asked for a sort of down payment to see if Will was fooling him; he asked for a property – the Old Frenchman’s Estate.

Will wanted a legacy and this Ben Quick was his kind of man. He wants a good son-in-law since the man courting his daughter is not showing any signs of commitment. In contrast, Will has a son, Jody, but considers him to be of no account. The fact that Will shows such little regard for Jody emphasizes an important story line of the movie, Jody’s efforts to win a father’s approval. Jody is not so much a real no account as he is a more moderate in his approach to business. But in Ben Quick, Will sees a man who will run his affairs well long after he is gone. He is driven by his legacy and he wants grandchildren. Though Jody is married he remains childless. Will thinks that perhaps his daughter, Clara, can provide him with that legacy he so desperately wants. The problem has been that she’s unmarried. Ben Quick looks a lot like Will’s solution and Ben likes the idea; he is attracted to Clara. The problem is that Clara doesn’t like the idea. Herein lays the main storyline of the movie – the effort that Ben Quick goes through to win Clara.

Paralleling that storyline is the effort that Minnie Littlejohn goes through to win a marriage commitment from Will Varner. It is interesting to note the same ‘don’t take no for an answer’ force that is Minnie when she practically tells Will that he is marrying her.

At the picnic table while Ben tries to talk Clara into a romance with him she balks stating that she is a human being and comes at a “high, high price”. Seeing that he is getting nowhere Ben makes a speech to Clara telling her, “Run, lady, and you keep on running, buy yourself a bus ticket and disappear. Change your name, dye your hair, get lost and maybe, just maybe you’re going to be safe from me.” Later in the movie, after the fire, Ben decides he can no longer stay in town and packs to leave. But now Clara has come around to liking him and she goes up his room where he is packing to leave and she repeats that same speech almost verbatim to him.

It is interesting to note that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward began dating in real life after working together on this movie and married shortly thereafter. They remained married for 50 years until Paul’s death from lung cancer in 2008. As of this writing Joanne Woodward is alive, but retired and living in Connecticut.

Jody Holds a Gun on Ben

Anthony Franciosa and Paul Newman

Anthony Franciosa and Paul Newman

Comparison to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

There are some obvious parallels between this movie and the previous movie I reviewed, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Both movies came out in 1958. This was the first of the two, but the stage version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had already been out and influenced the writers of this movie.

The most obvious similarity is that they share the same lead actor, Paul Newman.

Beyond that, however the character of Big Daddy greatly shaped the writers’ notion of the character of Will Varner. Both are self-made, financially successful men. Both have a type A personality. Both run their respective families with a forceful hand. Both have relationship problems with their children. Both are driven by the need to have grandchildren in order to carry on the family legacy. Finally, both arrive in the movie after a few earlier scenes due to an absence for medical issues.

The movies give us a look at wealthy southern culture in the 1950s. They are brought to us in such a way as to make us feel the heat of summer. Both movies take place in Mississippi. Both movies end with a reconciliation between father and son.

In all other aspect, however, the stories are very different.

Clara Captures Ben

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Movie Trailer

Will Varner and Ben Quick Size Each Other Up

Ben Quick and Clara Varner Talk on the Porch

Ben Kisses Clara then She Rebuffs Him

Ben Tells Clara to Run. Later Clara Tells Ben to Run Using His Words

Related Articles