Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
USA, 1961. Hal Wallis Productions. Screenplay by James Poe, Meade Roberts, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Cinematography by Charles Lang. Produced by Hal B. Wallis. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Production Design by Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler. Costume Design by Edith Head. Film Editing by Warren Low.
Tennessee Williams continues to be a popular source of material for adaptation a decade after the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire made him a household name beyond the New York theatre world, with this and Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone released the same year. Summer & Smoke was not a hit on the Great White Way when first produced, it later found more success off-Broadway and was rewritten both times, then further reworked by the author under the title The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. This muddled film version shows the great southern scribe indulging in another experiment on his favourite character combination, an older, unstable woman, and a spirited and deliciously handsome young man, with a real drag of a story surrounding them. Alma (Geraldine Page, possibly the finest female interpreter of Williams’ work) has been a curious creature since childhood and has grown into an old maid who indulges in few of life’s pleasures, living as she does with her harried preacher father and her mentally ill mother (a fabulous, if underseen Una Merkel). Longtime friend and neighbour Johnny (a miscast Laurence Harvey) has grown up the opposite, always indulging himself in a fast car or an even faster woman, and has returned from medical school with no intention of playing the dutiful doctor, drawn more to gambling houses and bordellos despite the exasperated disapproval of his own father. The two characters spark a connection upon their reunion, but Alma continues to look for something beyond the physical, her name does mean soul after all, and she longs to attain meaning and solve the mystery of life; ever the sensualist, Johnny refers to his anatomy charts and reminds her that we are all merely flesh and bone and to not enjoy life is to waste it. A series of scenes occur that constitute a plot of sorts, much of it surrounding the trouble Johnny gets himself into with his father and the response it elicits from Alma, but it’s all an excuse to have these two bump conflicting ideologies before their attempt to find the middle of the road sees them veering directly into opposite camp. In theory, a wise and witty observation of human relationships, but in practice it’s a slog to get through, Peter Glenville directs like he’s reading magazines behind the camera after calling for action, and the script reads like it’s stitched together from multiple versions and drafts. Harvey, despite never selling the role, at least brings a great deal of energy and passion to the performance, and Page is remarkable in the lead: as always brittle and enigmatic, she never allows her performance to descend to southern gothic stereotypes, nor does she ever enact a mannerism that isn’t without meaning or purpose. Bronislau Kaper’s rich, haunting musical score is another plus, and Charles Lang’s cinematography at least captures everything beautifully for as long as you can stay awake.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Actress (Geraldine Page); Best Supporting Actress (Una Merkel); Best Art Direction-Set Decoration-Colour; Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture
Golden Globe Award: Best Actress-Drama (Geraldine Page)
Nominations: Best Original Score; Most Promising Newcomer-Female (Pamela Tiffin)
Venice Film Festival: In Competition