Thursday, April 21, 2011

Classic Movie Review: Long Day's Journey Into Night

After Sidney Lumet's recent passing, I present a fresh look at one of his early films.

It’s not an easy thing to adapt a stage play for the screen, especially most 20th century American drama that centers on family conflicts. Dramatists like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill present intimate portraits of a handful of characters, usually bound by time and place. The drama is designed specifically to play out on a stage where there are far more limitations than in cinema.

Director Sidney Lumet, who recently passed away after a long and distinguished cinematic career, got his start in television presenting teleplays and his early cinematic efforts were often adapted stage plays. His Twelve Angry Men was a film adapted from a teleplay that was later adapted for the stage. Of course the film was almost perfectly tailored to be done on stage, although he made it cinematic.

His 1962 adaptation of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night feels much more constrained by the conventions of theater and a bit hamstrung by what appears to be an attempt to take the drama off the ‘stage’ and into the camera.

The drama itself is considered to be O’Neill’s magnum opus, an autobiographical examination of the neuroses, addictions and deep-seated resentments that plagued his family, including his morphine addicted mother, alcoholic father and brother and himself (also an alcoholic) and suffering from tuberculosis. The only other on-stage and on-screen character is a young housemaid. It all takes place during the course of one day in the interior of the Tyrone family summer home in Connecticut. Lumet tries to shrug off the constraints of the setting by taking some of the action outside to the yard or the front porch, but there’s little to be done about the theatricality of soliloquizing characters.

What can a director do with what is ostensibly a static (in term of setting) drama? Lumet uses the camera in often jarring ways, throwing off the balance of comfort for the viewer. The editing is often unconventional, cutting to very brief extreme close-up tilted reaction shots immediately following medium or medium long shots that have been held for several seconds while a character speaks. I suppose his goal is to use visual cues to keep the audience feeling uncomfortable in order to reflect the sudden twists and turns in the dialogue as characters go from shouting accusations to apologies and half-hearted attempts at affection. Lumet also frequently places his camera below a character who is at that moment the victim of hurled barbs and insults, giving the sense that the unfurled aggression and brow-beating is physically overpowering.

The DVD copy I viewed was woefully presented in a full screen format with a 1.33 aspect ratio while Lumet shot the film at 1.85. This had the effect of making most of the film, interiors especially, claustrophobic. I kept feeling like an important element of the film’s visual style was lost because the framing often felt artificial and it was occasionally obvious that scenery was lost to the cropping. The experience left me wondering how different I would have responded to a widescreen presentation.

Ralph Richardson and Katharine Hepburn play James and Mary Tyrone. He is a former legendary stage actor, now often the victim of bad real estate deals and (according to the accusations of his family) a cheapskate who won’t spring for a decent doctor who knows what he’s doing. Their two sons are 33 year old Jamie (Jason Robards) and 23 year old Edmund (Dean Stockwell). Edmund is sick. The three men all realize what his disease is and what the potential consequences are – sanatorium for several months and possibly death. Mary is in complete denial, already having lost her father to the disease and her second son, Eugene, lost in infancy to measles.

As the drama opens, things seem happy and right in the family. Mary and James laugh and joke with one another, but when their boys enter things quickly turn quite serious and the gravity only deepens from there until the very end. New revelations are made on nearly every page of the play, many are repeated several times over with apologies and reconciliations made in between. It is a wild up-and-down ride with devastating personal consequences for the four main characters.

The strongest elements of the film are unfortunately not the visual style. It would have been nice if Lumet had found a way to really make it more cinematic. As the film stands, it works well and is compelling drama based on the writing itself and the tremendous acting of the four leads, Robards and Stockwell in particular. As the younger actors in the film, they come across as products of the method school that made James Dean and Marlon Brando so popular only a few years prior. Though I’m very familiar with a lot of the work of both Robards and Stockwell, I rarely saw the actors in the roles. They inhabit Jamie and Edmund, they sweat blood in their roles, they become the Tyrone sons. As a side note, the young Robards reminded me very much, both vocally and physically, of Humphrey Bogart. It was like watching the actor Bogart could have been if he hadn’t always just been Bogart.

On the other hand, I was always aware I was watching Katharine Hepburn. Great actress though she was in her day, I can’t get past the very dramatic nature of her delivery of dialogue and the way she uses her body. The same is true for Richardson, although as James Tyrone is himself a theatrical character given his background as a stage actor, you can see how Richardson’s interpretation involves making the man a product of his profession.

Obviously Lumet’s background in theater is what led him to make later films that were so focused on script and character. However, and without trying to disparage Lumet, who seems to have done the best her could, I can’t help feeling that Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains a play that is probably best seen on the stage. 

1 comment:

  1. “Long Day’s Journey into the Night” by Sidney Lumet (based on Eugene O’Neill’s play) is a film about family life – about a common destiny, how we cope with problems of personal relationships, how we treat one another inside our families, how human soul becomes part of the family soul, and how our social life competes and coexists with our family obligations and dedications.
    When we today watch the life of Tyrone family in the beginning of 20th century, we are amazed at how much American family relations have changed after only one hundred years. Our main difference from the Tyrones is not how much we have developed in our ability to be wiser and kinder to people we love and live with. The picture is, rather, the opposite – how much emotional sensitivity, mental maneuverability in adapting to each other, empathy and sympathy we have lost for these years of our country’s “democratic development”, and the major losses, it seems, happened during the last thirty years.
    Watching “Long Day’s…” is an educational and a psycho-dramatic experience mobilizing our introspection and our ability to observe our emotional reactions (in comparison with that of Tyrone family members) more objectively. James, Mary and their two grown-up sons (Jamie and Edmund) are born in the very midst of traditional Christianity and, together with American culture are going through the process of secularization of worldview. A father who was a famous Shakespearean actor still maintains a religious psychology (that Lumet analyses in detail), although a refracted one by his exposition to the grace of serious art. Mary, his wife, personifies martyrdom aspect of religious psychology - she suffers for being a “bad mother and wife” but her self-judgment is severe because of spiritual perfectionism of her worldview. James and Mary’s sons try to rebel against religious authoritarianism – they personify correspondingly two aspects of post-religious spirituality, Jamie – its intellectual aspect, and Edmund – its artistic-mystical aspect.
    While experiencing the film we feel that we have to learn a lot from the of the beginning of previous century, that our everyday communications with each other are cognitively flat and thin and emotionally narrow and petty in comparison with theirs. Instead of honest arguments, as they had, we have “premature ejaculations” of clashes, frustrations and sulking. Instead of positive confrontations we choose people (to be with) by the principle of similarity, and we are isolated from the otherness of other people and of the world around. Because Lumet concentrates on the psychological confrontations between characters and on the truths coming out of it the film is very interesting to watch – our life today with all its distractions from our humanity to entertaining (consumerist) images of Hollywood blockbusters, TV soups of soaps and pop-singing is much more boring than they had way back then.
    The acting of Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell is not just dramatic but poetic, not just truthful but gracious, and Mary Tyrone of Katharine Hepburn is her best work on screen, while Ralph Richardson was able not only to open the heart of James Tyrone for the viewers but sharply depicted his psychological defenses.
    By Victor Enyutin