The plot follows the conflicts of the Varner family after ambitious drifter Ben Quick (Newman) arrives in their small Mississippi town. Will Varner (Orson Welles), the family's patriarch, has doubts about his son, Jody (Anthony Franciosa), and sees Ben as a better choice to inherit his position. Will therefore tries to push Ben and his daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) into marriage.
Filmed in Clinton, Louisiana, the cast was composed mostly of former Actors Studio students, whom Ritt met while he was an assistant teacher to Elia Kazan. For the leading role, Warner Brothers loaned Newman to 20th Century Fox. The production was marked by conflicts between Welles and Ritt, which drew media attention. The music score was composed by Alex North, and the title song, "The Long Hot Summer", written by North and Sammy Cahn, was performed by Jimmie Rodgers.
The film was well received by critics but did not score significant results at the box office. Its critical success revitalized the career of Ritt, who had been blacklisted during most of the 1950s. Newman won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Ben Quick is on trial, suspected of barn-burning, but when no solid evidence is found, the judge expels him from town. Ben hitches a ride to Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi, with two young women in a convertible, Clara Varner and her sister-in-law Eula (Lee Remick). Clara's father, Will Varner, is the domineering owner of most of the town.
Ben goes to the Varner plantation. Will is away, but his only son, Jody, agrees to let Ben become a sharecropper on a vacant farm. When Will returns from a stay in the hospital, he is furious at Jody for hiring a notorious "barn burner," but soon begins to see in Ben a younger version of himself and comes to admire his ruthlessness and ambition, qualities that Jody lacks. Will is also disappointed with the man that his 23-year-old daughter, Clara, has been seeing for five or six years: Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson), a genteel Southern "blue blood" and a mama's boy.
Will therefore schemes to push his daughter and Ben together, to try to bring fresh, virile blood into the family. However, she is openly hostile to the crude, if magnetic, upstart. Will is determined to have his bloodline go on, so he offers to make Ben wealthy if he marries Clara. Meanwhile, Minnie Littlejohn (Angela Lansbury), Will's long-time mistress, is dissatisfied with their arrangement and wants to marry him.
Jody becomes increasingly frustrated, seeing his position in the family being undermined. After Ben sells some wild horses for Will, he is rewarded with the position of clerk in the general store, alongside Jody. Will even invites him to live in the family mansion.
This is the final straw for Jody. He pulls a gun on Ben and threatens to kill him. Ben talks his way out by telling Jody about buried Civil War-era treasure he has supposedly found on a property that Will gave him, a down payment to seal their bargain over Clara. Jody starts digging and finds a bag of coins. He is elated, thinking he might finally free himself of his father's domination; he buys the land from Ben. Late that night, Will finds his son, still digging. After examining one of the coins, Will notices that it was minted in 1910. Jody is shattered.
Ben aggressively pursues Clara. She finally asks Alan what his intentions are, and does not like what she hears. A defeated Jody finds his father alone in their barn. Jody bolts the entrance and sets the barn on fire, but he cannot go through with it and releases Will. The incident leads to a reconciliation between father and son. Men from town assume Ben is the culprit and start toward him, but Will claims he accidentally started the fire by dropping his cigar.
The smell of fire brings back bad memories for Ben, who confesses to Clara that his father was a real barn-burner. He tells her how, at age ten, he warned a farmer that his father was about to set another fire. Ben's father got away, never seen again. Ben tells her he is leaving town, but Clara makes it clear she has fallen in love with him. An elated Will confides to Minnie that life is so good, he may have to live forever.Paul Newman as Ben Quick. Newman met director Martin Ritt as a student at the Actors Studio, where Ritt was a teacher-assistant for Elia Kazan. Newman, who was under a contract with Warner Brothers, was loaned to 20th Century Fox for a fee of US$75,000. Meanwhile, his contract earned him US$17,500 for each ten-week shot. He travelled to Clinton, Louisiana, before the start of filming to study the mannerisms, accent and speech of the Southern men in order to create a proper characterization.
Orson Welles as Will Varner. The character was inspired by Big Daddy Pollitt from Tennessee Williams' play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Welles' presence on the film was marked by multiple conflicts with director Martin Ritt. He agreed to take the role due to a tax debt of US$150,000; he stated years later, "I hated making Long Hot Summer. I've seldom been as unhappy in a picture".
Director Martin Ritt met the three cast members listed below while they were students at the Actors Studio.Joanne Woodward as Clara Varner. Woodward ended up marrying co-star Newman in 1958.
Anthony Franciosa as Jody Varner
Lee Remick as Eula Varner. Remick later admitted that during the shooting she was intimidated by Orson Welles on the set because of his "icon" status.
The supporting roles were played by:Angela Lansbury as Minnie Littlejohn
Richard Anderson as Alan Stewart
Sarah Marshall as Agnes Stewart
Mabel Albertson as Elizabeth Stewart
J. Pat O'Malley as Ratliff
William "Bill" Walker as Lucius
Alex North composed the film's score, which leaned toward a jazz style. "The Long Hot Summer" was the only song written by North to be used as the title track of a film. Composed in a AABA form, it was characterized by its lyricisms and its "tense dissonant" jazz-figures. The lyrics of the song were written by Sammy Cahn, while instrumental variations of the melody were used throughout the film, underlining the progression of the relationship between Ben and Clara. Recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, it was released by Roulette Records, reaching number 77 on Billboard's Top 100 Sides in June 1958. The orchestra was conducted by Lionel Newman.
Billboard described the soundtrack as "a model of music use in a dramatic film". On another review, Billboard favored the album, stating that it "makes for good listening out of the cinematic context" and that the financial success of the soundtrack may have been propelled by Jimmie Rodgers' "smooth vocal treatment". The publication praised North's musical understanding of the deep South, and particularly praised the song "Eula", describing it as a "pure gem of sex-on-wax".
The movie opened to good reviews but did not score a significant profit at the box office, grossing US$3,500,000. Billboard commended the acting as "first-rate" and "robust", with particular praise for Woodward, and also praised Ritt's direction. Meanwhile, The Reporter highlighted the film's similarities to the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and described the cast as "an impressive one", but remarked that the actors and characters "never seem to get together". The review called Welles' "great" and "gusty", but described Woodward's participation as a "poker bluff".
Time described Newman's performance as "mean and keen as a cackle-edge scythe". The publication also praised Woodward, stating her acting was delivered with "fire and grace not often seen in a movie queen", but decried Welles' acting as "scarcely an improvement" on his performance in his previous role, in Moby Dick. Variety praised the scriptwriters for the successful merging of the three Faulkner stories that inspired the film. The review also praised Martin Ritt, the camerawork by Joseph LaShelle, and the film's musical score. Cosmopolitan called the movie a "gutsy melodrama".
The film reestablished the career of Martin Ritt, who had been on the blacklist for most of the decade for alleged associations with communists. Paul Newman's performance as Ben Quick brought him national fame, as well as the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. During the production, Newman married co-star Joanne Woodward.
A television series of the same name aired between 1965 and 1966, featuring Dan O'Herlihy, Roy Thinnes, Nancy Malone, Lana Wood, Ruth Roman, and Edmond O'Brien. It was remade for television in 1985, featuring Jason Robards, Don Johnson, and Cybill Shepherd. This rendition received two Emmy nominations, for Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or a Special.
In 2002, the American Film Institute nominated this film for AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions.