Based on Eugene O’Neill’s semi-biographical play about insidiously destructive family ties, Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) is a mostly compelling – occasionally tedious – but remarkably faithful adaptation of the original stagecraft. Infrequently, the director’s devotion to his source material results in some cumbersome camera set ups. Lumet, who began his career working on a shoestring budget in fast paced TV serials with even more limiting camera techniques, exploits the economy of that small screen medium for the movies. He staves off the temptation to ‘open up’ the play, relying on the briefest of exterior location work for his first act, but then isolating virtually all of subsequent scenes inside a single studio bound set.
This visualized claustrophobia doesn’t particularly hamper the production, although Lumet’s prevalent usage of extreme close ups to punctuate a line or elevate the dramatic mood of a particular moment arguably seems a much better fit for the television screen than the movies. It might have all turned to gumbo, except that Lumet is working with an exceptional cast teetering on the verge of some sublime brilliance in this ensemble piece; Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Dean Stockwell and Jeanne Barr.
Katherine Hepburn had officially entered the ‘crazy lady’ phase of her career in 1959 with a riveting portrait of the mad matriarch in Suddenly Last Summer. Many a great female star from the 1930s and ‘40s wound up in similar fare throughout the 1960s. And yet, racing through the annals of great literature one is immediately struck by the regularity of this oft conjured middle-aged woman, unflatteringly drawn as a maniacal, injurious creature devoured by her own inconsolable whims. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night Hepburn is Mary Tyrone; a careworn harpy who drowns contempt for her miserly husband and shiftless sons, and her more intimate sorrows with a reoccurring morphine addiction.
Mary was a promising young lass once. But that was a very long time ago; before she met James Tyrone (Ralph Richardson), the clever ham who turned a one hit wonder into his career. The perversity in Mary and James’ relationship is that it ping-pongs between a mutual regard and devotion and a seething repugnance that frequently rears its ugly head. The couple’s inability to keep this more unhealthy aspect of their relationship a secret has contaminated their sons; eldest Jamie (Jason Robards) and the baby of the family, Edmund (Dean Stockwell). Jamie is a boozehound who frequents bars and brothels with an unquenchable thirst to lose and/or destroy himself. Edmund, on the other hand, is a bittersweet realist, currently struggling with a diagnosis of consumption that has intruded on his limited aspirations to become a writer and poet.
Following Mary’s release from a state sanctioned recovery program for drug addiction the family has retreated to their summer home on the Connecticut coast; a large but slightly dilapidated farm house with a spacious garage where it is hoped everyone can rest, recuperate and reconcile their differences while facing their greatest challenge yet; the very real prospect that Edmund will die. Although never seen, the Tyrones readily reference Doctor Hardy – a quack who James discovered in a tavern during his own drinking days and made his family’s physician, moreover because he was cheap rather than skilled in his profession.
Indeed, as the narrative unravels, one of the irksome general complaints the family has is that James is a skinflint for just about everything except his own desire to acquire more land and real estate. Having grown up dirt poor James harbors a poor man’s angst over the possibility of slipping into poverty once again and has repeatedly refused his wife and children creature comforts they believe they deserve. He has even cheated them out of an elegant summer home. The house is a decaying ramshackle of worn knickknacks, its wallpaper peeling; its’ carpets threadbare: a very concrete manifestation for their individual illnesses of the heart and mind; hardly a home and barely homey, but a necessary evil: the one place they can hide from the world, though arguably never from themselves or each other.
As in the play, the movie is all about revealing truth behind the collusions of this devastatingly flawed family unit: a father’s diseased and deliberate cruelty toward the woman he supposedly loves; sibling rivalry compounded by pity, disdain and fear of one’s own mortality; marital indiscretions – and the jealousy, angst, hurt and emotional chaos and baggage it has brought upon the family – and, a lost woman’s incapacity to accept her own failings as wife and mother without reverting to drugs as a crutch. Each dysfunction is explored through confrontation. What makes O’Neill’s words particularly engrossing is that there is no resolution forthcoming from this conflict.
All of O’Neill’s characters are iron-willed to the point of absurdity, ensconced in all their misguided ennui and regrets. Mary finds a scapegoat in her husband so she does not have to face the truth. But is her chiding truly heartfelt or merely a mask so that the rest of the family will ignore her renewed indulgences without having to feel ashamed? James remains an unrepentant cheapskate – less effective in his manipulations of the family now that the boys have grown up, yet maintaining his blamelessness, even as Mary relapses into her escapist nightmare of morphine abuse and the family unit continues to crumble beyond repair all around him.
Jamie is Edmund’s rival. Despite his heartfelt and frankly bitter confession - that he has deliberately done everything in his power to corrupt his younger brother with his own vices of wine and women - Edmund cannot bring himself to truly hate his own brother. The fraternal tragedy herein is that Jamie loves Edmund. In fact, one can argue that Jamie has merely deflected his own self-loathing and resentment towards his parents, their inability to love each other or him in any sort of meaningful way, onto Edmund. But this only makes him hate himself more – the cyclical nature of his own abhorrence devouring his self-respect. The complexities of this fraternal bond create an undertow that threatens to ruin the one chance either brother has at remaining friends. Arguably, this bond will never entirely severe unless Edmund dies.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is destructively poetic. It finds artistic measure in its weighty subject matter and manages to draw out the audience’s empathy for characters that are largely unsympathetic of their own accord. The film is slightly unbalanced by Lumet’s faithfulness to the text. His use of the long take allows for the actors to explore their characters and find the spark of electricity through raw performance. But the lack of cuts also anchors the movie more concretely to performance, as in viewing a moving tableau of live theater rather than experiencing a cinematic interpretation of the stage show.
Katherine Hepburn is particularly grand in all her halcyon madness; inspired even, while mussing her disheveled locks or stumbling about the halls, dragging a crumpled wedding dress behind her. It’s a showy part – one for which Ms. Hepburn is immensely suited. Regrettably, she is absent from almost the entire last act – a void not entirely filled by the confrontational dialogue between Ralph Richardson and Dean Stockwell. But Stockwell and Richard Robards have exceptional on screen chemistry during their bittersweet repartee; unexpected and electrifying – conveying the breadth of what must have been a severely flawed childhood that both their characters have tried so desperately since to forget. The one disappointment herein is Richardson – a gifted actor who fleetingly breathes life into his misguided patriarch, but on the whole reverts to the more epic gesturing of a stage actor that seems out of place amongst the rest of the performances.
I’ll just go on record stating that Long Day’s Journey Into Night won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. In an era when family dysfunctions were rarely discussed – and arguably never even suggested in public – O’Neill’s probing deconstruction of this atypical middleclass family had exculpatory value. In today’s social climate where everyone cannot wait to divulge their own family secrets – increasingly even to total strangers (as on reality TV shows) the play and the movie’s impact have undeniably been blunted. And the film is very much a time capsule of its vintage: further trapped by Lumet’s very obvious staging that owes more to serialized TV than a cinematic experience. Is it a good movie? Let’s just say, it has its place. Will it entertain? Mostly – yes. Is it a classic? No. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night is still a fairly fascinating way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an improvement on previous DVD incarnations, chiefly its overall clarity that yields a remarkable amount of fine detail in Boris Kaufman’s B&W cinematography. Close ups in particular reveal startling specifics and imperfections in hair, fabric and flesh. Location photography seems to suffer from slightly boosted contrast while interior shots look fairly accurate. A smattering of film grain is accurately represented throughout. Age related artifacts crop up now and then and are obvious, though arguably never distracting. Overall, the print elements used in this transfer are solid. The audio is DTS mono and adequately represented. Olive gives us zero extras and a very scant selection of chapter stops to choose from. Ten chapters for a 174 min. movie is unacceptable!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)